A Little Night Music. It is a ballad from Act II in which the character Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life.
Instead, they symbolize fools.
Stephen Sondheim explains:
As I think of it now, the song could have been called ‘Send in the Fools.’ I knew I was writing a song in which Desirée is saying, ‘aren’t we foolish’ or ‘aren’t we fools’? Well, a synonym for fools is clowns, but ‘Send in the Fools’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.
‘Send in the Clowns’ was never meant to be a soaring ballad; it’s a song of regret. And it’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up; so it’s a song of regret and anger, and therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.