The late Glynis Johns’ eternal ‘Send in the Clowns’ is her singular artistry at its most beautiful and moving

5 January 2024, 17:39

Glynis Johns sings Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’
Glynis Johns sings Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’. Picture: YouTube / Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

The British star of stage and screen died yesterday, aged 100 – and this immortal performance is held in our hearts.

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British singer and star of film and stage, Glynis Johns died in Los Angeles on 4 January 2024, aged 100.

Johns was born on 5 October 5 1923 in South Africa, to Welsh actor Mervyn Johns and concert pianist Alys Maude Steele-Payne. She began acting at age 12, and found her breakout role in a London production of South Riding in 1938. Over a remarkable career, with a radiant presence and uniquely smoky singing voice, she appeared in dozens of plays and more than 60 films.

Most famously, Johns played suffragette mother Winifred Banks in the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins. While many tributes rightly highlight that most famous role – her performance in another musical is also being held as a stellar example of her singular artistry.

Read more: Lin-Manuel Miranda fronts chorus of Broadway stars in Times Square tribute to Stephen Sondheim

In 1973, Johns was in the original cast of A Little Night Music, written by acclaimed composer and legendary Stephen Sondheim and premiered on Broadway. Sondheim wrote one of his most famous songs ‘Send In the Clowns’ for Johns, who played the role of Desirée.

In the melancholic song, Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life and its lost loves. Johns had her distinctive, husky and technically limited singing voice, but the fit with Sondheim’s music and poignant text is simply perfect. A moment of unforgettable emotion and uncommon beauty is created – just listen to her 1982 gala performance of it below.

Glynis Johns Send in the Clowns

Music critic Anthony Tommasini summed it up in The New York Times, “Stephen Sondheim composed his most famous song, ‘Send In the Clowns,’ for an actress with virtually no voice, Glynis Johns, and few genuine singers have performed it as effectively.”

Another YouTube commenter hit on the same theme. “Glynis isn't a singer but she carries this song better than anyone else who has covered it since. A great actress who knows how to convey emotion.”

Sondheim knew it too.

Glynis Johns was one of a kind, with that ability to connect and communicate with her unforgettable presence and unique voice. She will be much missed, but never forgotten.