Grammy award-winning singer Judy Collins will perform a concert, “Love Letters to Sondheim,” at the Merriam Theater on Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
The show is a fitting tribute to the out gay composer, whose song, “Send in the Clowns” from his show, “A Little Night Music,” became a signature song for Collins and one of her biggest and best-known hits.
In a recent phone interview, the singer talked about “Clowns,” admitting that at the time she discovered the song, she didn’t know Stephen Sondheim. A friend had sent her the cast album for “A Little Night Music” and told her to listen to the track. Collins did and immediately called Hal Prince, who knew Collins from her recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
She recalled, “I told him I listened to this cast album and there’s a wonderful song on here, and I told him what it was. He said, ‘200 people have recorded it.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’” She asked him who should do the orchestration. He said, “Jonathan Tunick.” The rest is musical history. The song spent 11 weeks on the charts in 1975, and 16 more weeks in 1977. It won Song of the Year at the Grammys in 1976.
Collins got to know Hal Prince well in the years before his death and he told her, “You don’t know how much you did for Sondheim and that song — it was phenomenal!”
Collins boasts that she was “the first to get the hit,” citing that Frank Sinatra also recorded “Send in the Clowns” around the same time. Jac Holzman an executive at Elektra Records later confessed to Collins that he once got a call from the then-President of Elektra saying that Sinatra’s people called to ask Elektra to hold the release of Collins version because [Sinatra] wanted to go first. Jac told Collins, “I guess you know what I told him.”
The anecdote serves as a guide for how Collins determines what to sing. She revealed, “In each case, there are songs I chose that made it out of the jungle,” and added, “I am attracted to songs I fall in love with. It’s not going through the whole show.”
She explained, “It’s great to see a show, but what everybody wants is to walk out and sing the song that’s the point of the whole show. It means that the author [of the show] has made his point. It may have taken him two hours and 350 musicians, and the whole mishegoss, but it makes his reputation.”
Collins then provides an example to make her point. “Randy Newman wrote a musical called ‘Faust.’ It’s interesting, but it has one song that is spectacular, called, ‘Feels Like Home.’ It is a stunning song. It’s worth this effort to write whole musical just to get this one song.”
Ten songs by Sondheim appear on Collins’ 2017 album, “A Love Letter to Sondheim,” which is the basis for her concert. She anticipates performing “Not While I’m Around,” “Take Me to the World,” “Liaisons” and “Anyone Can Whistle” in Philadelphia. “They are stand-alone songs,” she observed, “They don’t need a show to go with them.”
The album almost never came to be. Twenty-seven years ago, Sondheim was going to play on the album for Nonesuch Records, but Sondheim declined and Nonesuch passed. Collins was crushed, and after 25 years, finally released the dream project.
“I wanted to do an album of the songs that were right for me. Not because they were Sondheim, but because they were interesting to me and wonderful songs,” she acknowledged. “I’ve had 40 years to choose from the repertoire of Sondheim. So, I’ve looked and listened to the songs and chosen the best — especially those for a singer, not simply an interpreter or dramatist. There are lyrical songs that fewer people know from ‘Into the Woods.’ I think you’ll find that I made them singable.”
Collins’ style is distinctive, and she observed, “I sing like Judy Collins, not like anyone else. That’s the secret — if there is a secret. I’m not a cabaret singer. It doesn’t matter what venue I am in, or how large the audience is — a huge outdoor festival or 100 seats at the Carlyle — it’s me singing the song.”
As for what audiences can expect from “Love Letters to Stephen Sondheim,” Collins demurs, “I’ll do a little of this and a little of that. It’s 60 years of music. I sing some of the hits, and I’ll intersperse other songs from my career. I hope it’s a wild adventure in sparkling history. I’ll do highlights — ‘Send in the Clowns,’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ — and a new song I’ve written called ‘Dreamers,’ about immigration. I think you’ll find some surprises as well as hits.”
Judy Collins performs “Love Letters to Stephen Sondheim” at the Merriam Theater, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201920/kcp/judy-collins.