“Send in the Clowns,” words and music by Stephen Sondheim. The decline of the American theater song from real to pseudo sophistication can be measured in the distance from Stephen Sondheim’s work on “Gee, Officer Krupke” or “Somewhere” in West Side Story (1957) to this mystifyingly popular 1973 ballad from A Little Night Music . The just-over-anoctave range and talky, note-y melody make it easy prey for nightclub singers, but they should steer clear. In its dramatic context the fact that the song is delivered by an aging actress jilted by an old lover is some mitigation for its selfmocking, histrionic attitude: “Isn’t it rich?…Making my entrance again / with my usual flair, / sure of my lines, / no one is there.…Don’t you love farce?” On its own it becomes embarrassingly self-dramatizing. The image of the clowns is meant to lend pathos, but it is a pathos the song never earns, so it registers only as artsy-kitschy cliché, like painting on velvet. The clowns, the oh-so-sophisticated irony, and the solemn repetition of musical phrases cross the line into pretentiousness —death to any popular art form and the last thing one would have expected from the author of “Krupke.” Taking itself too seriously, the song never breaks through to real feeling. That American Song: The Complete Musical Theater Companion calls it “one of the great theater songs” makes it a shoo-in for this honor.
“Skylark,” music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Given the astounding wealth of wonderful American songs, picking a most underrated one is tough. Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind” and Kern’s “All the Things You Are” may be underplayed, but these great theater composers, with their colleagues Berlin and Porter and the Gershwins, are now getting their due in the concert hall. Among lesser-known gems, there’s Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s jazzy ballad “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” written for the 1959 show The Nervous Set . It is a witty and moving update of “Spring Is Here”: “Morning’s kiss wakes trees and flowers, / and to them I’d like to drink a toast.…Spring arrived on time, / only what became of you, dear?” June Christy’s sexy performance, throaty and California casual, is a perfect match for the song’s fifties beatnik cool, though Ella Fitzgerald isn’t bad either. But so obscure a choice feels like cheating.
There are more unsung (in both senses) classics among the lower class of composers who wrote for Tin Pan Alley and the movies. One very strong candidate is the sublime 1942 “There Will Never Be Another You,” by Mack Gordon and the great Harry Warren, probably our most underrated songwriter. I’ll give the nod, though, to Carmichael and Mercer’s haunting 1941 masterpiece “Skylark.” which has been unfairly overshadowed by work each did with other partners. The Savannahian Mercer, a poet of country songbirds and trains, brings his special strain of Southern romanticism to what begins as a love song: “Skylark, / have you anything to say to me? / Won’t you tell me where my love can be? / Is there a meadow in the mist, / where someone’s waiting to be kissed?” But the longing in the song is for more than a dream of love. Mercer’s skylark, like Shelley’s, and like Keats’s nightingale, bears a message from a faraway world of evanescent beauty. Where Shelley’s blithe spirit warbles unbodied joy, and Keats’s light-winged dryad coos an ecstatic forgetfulness, Mercer’s American songbird sings of the vanishing American rural life itself, and its beautiful song, like the ravishing, heartbreaking tune Carmichael gives it, carries the impossibly sweet ache of intense nostalgia: “Skylark,1/ have you seen a valley green with spring, / where my heart can go a-journeying, / over the shadows and the rain, / to a blossom-covered lane?” In perhaps the most astonishing release ever written for a pop song, Carmichael’s lush chromarie harmonies and vernacular bluesiness match perfectly Mercer’s vision of the musky, soft, wild, bluesy spirit of the American country night: “And in your lonely flight, / haven’t you heard the music in the night? / Wonderful music, faint as a ‘will o’ the wisp,’ crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.” Almost alone among their more urban and more hard-boiled colleagues, Carmichael and Mercer heard that music and made it their muse. In 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor and the enormous transformations to come, the song is like a farewell not only to a lost love but to a vanishing country and a vanishing time. “Skylark, I don’t know if you can find these things, / but my heart is riding on your wings, / so if you see them anywhere, / won’t you lead me there?”