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This song was originally from Stephen Sondheim's 1973 musical A Little Night Music. He wrote it in one night three nights before the opening night as the leading lady, Glynis Johns, didn't have her own song. In the musical, Johns' character is looking back on her life with great disappointment when she performs this song.
Apart from Judy Collins, this has been covered by many artists including Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, for whom Sondheim added a verse.
As Glynis Johns had a breathy voice and a limited range, Sondheim wrote the song with short phrases and a small music range of only an octave. She won a 1973 Tony award for her role in the musical.
The title refers to a phrase reputedly used in a circus when an unforeseen disaster had occurred, with the clowns being sent in to distract the audience from the problem. It's a metaphor for a tragic fall from grace. (thanks, Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England, for all above)
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