Judy Collins intersects with Stephen Sondheim

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 24, 2015
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When it comes to the songs of Stephen Sondheim, Judy Collins has planted a flag marking her territory. "You know, I own a piece of the property, so I'm very happy now to be filling in the landscaping," she said on the phone between sniffles of a receding cold. The legendary folk singer-turned-popular chanteuse will debut her new Finding Sondheim show in San Francisco on Feb. 28 and March 1, with a CD and a PBS special in the works.

That piece of Sondheim property that Collins calls her own is "Send in the Clowns," a song that gave her a hit single in 1975, topped only by her recording of "Both Sides Now" seven years before, and provided Sondheim with his one and only song to crack the charts. "I have a letter from him thanking me for giving him his hit," Collins said. "And I'm the only one who had a hit with 'Send in the Clowns,' including Sinatra, which sometimes people forget."

Judy Collins was a rising folksinger when she appeared on TV's Hootenanny in 1963. Photo: Courtesy ABC

Finding Sondheim is part of the Bay Area Cabaret series at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room, where Collins appeared in the early 1980s when it was an ongoing supperclub. For Collins, who figures she has seen every Sondheim musical with the exception of Assassins, putting together this show has been more than scribbling out a list of songs.

"I think people will discover the interlocking of our lives because I tell both of our stories," she said. "It's very important to understand why I would be singing Sondheim in the first place, and why I would be singing these particular songs in the second place. It's a very interesting journey to find where we intersect creatively �" what I was doing at the time I was recording 'Send in the Clowns,' and what he was doing when I was recording 'Both Sides Now.' It's like a duet without the other person being there."

In addition to "Send in the Clowns," which originated in the musical A Little Night Music, Collins has also recorded over the years Sondheim's "Pretty Women" and "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd, and "I Remember Sky" from Evening Primrose. "I'll be doing those songs, but also things that are sort of far out of the expectations that people may have. To make them cry, you have to make them laugh, so there are a lot of stories that are interwoven, which I think will be illuminating. They certainly are to me."

The early image of Collins was of a willowy folksinger with flowers in her hair, and at age 75, that image persists despite a life that has often veered far from it. She has written books and talked extensively about her decades as an alcoholic, her battle with bulimia, the suicide of her only child, and debilitating depression. "But as Leonard Cohen says in that great song 'Anthem,' there's a crack in everything, but that's how the light gets through."

She also has chronicled a series of lovers that most famously included Stephen Stills, who wrote "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" about her. The carousel of love ended when she met graphic designer Louis Nelson in 1979, whom she married in 1996.

She's also been sober for 36 years, which means through much of her career, even for several years after recording "Send in the Clowns," she was building her days around copious intakes of vodka. "I met Janis Joplin at the Troubadour, and she said, 'One of us is going to make it, and it's not going to be me.' I was stunned, because even though I knew she drank, I didn't understand that she knew how sick I was."

Collins' father was a functioning alcoholic, and she said, "I was taught by the best. If you are a functioning alcoholic, your whole life is spent proving you're not an alcoholic. You have to maintain your professional standards, and believe me, I don't know now how I did it. I finally crashed and burned, and I just said, 'Oh my God, I give up,' which of course is the best possible way to go into treatment. If you don't give up, you're in real trouble."

Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" from Follies may not seem a Collins-style song, but its survival sentiment certainly is relevant to her life. Is the song part of her Sondheim show? "I'm not going to tell you one way or the other, and you'll just have to wait and see," she said. But a pesky reporter wore her down. "Okay, yes, I'll give you that. I'll be singing 'I'm Still Here,'" Collins said. "It takes courage to still be here, but as they say, courage comes from humility when you're on your knees."


Judy Collins will perform Finding Sondheim at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room on Feb. 28 and March 1. Tickets ($60-$90) are available at bayareacabaret.org.