Interview: Judy Collins on Sondheim, Touring, and Her Broadway Dreams

The beloved folk singer takes the stage at Town Hall on December 17.

For six decades, Judy Collins has been one of the brightest stars in the pop music firmament, and she plans to keep on shining. Currently, the legendary 82-year-old singer and social activist is on the road with her Winter Stories tour, alongside Chatham County Line and Toshi Reagon, which will make its only New York City stop at Town Hall on December 17. In addition, the Manhattan resident has plans to tour much of the country and Europe all through 2022, and will release her latest album of new music, Spellbound, on February 25.

TheaterMania recently chatted with Collins about her love of touring, what audiences can expect to hear at Town Hall, her personal and professional associations with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, and her own dreams of being on Broadway.

Judy Collins
Judy Collins
(© David Gordon)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you been excited about getting back to touring?
Yes, I love touring. I think I'm literally born to do this. When I was a little girl, my dad starting touring with National School Assemblies, which was part of FDR's agenda of getting music out to the people. Because he was blind, my mom drove, and back then, because I was the only child, I had the backseat all to myself and could spread out with my games and everything. It still feels like that today. In fact, I started touring professionally as a folk singer in 1959 and never had a vacation until the pandemic hit. I guess we all needed a break – including the planet.

Which songs from the Winter Stories tour set are you most excited about audiences hearing?
First and foremost is Joni Mitchell's "River," which I've never done before. It was chosen for me when I was recording the Winter Stories album, and as soon as I heard it, I knew it was going to be mine forever. And I am always excited to do my song "The Blizzard." It's based on real people, a real diner, and real weather, although I got the geography in Colorado wrong. Anyway, when I start to sing the first verse, I can literally hear the silence, because people want to hear the rest of the story; they want to know how things are going to work out for the narrator. And, of course, we'll do a Stephen Sondheim song in his honor. I think it will be "Move On," because I love it so much and I think it has words to live by.

Speaking of Sondheim, how did your recording of "Send in the Clowns," which won the 1975 Grammy Award for Song of the Year, come about?
One day, my dear friend Nancy called and said, "I am sending you this record, but don't look at the cover or the writer's name, just put the needle on this cut." So, I did and played "Send in the Clowns" and I thought, "Oh my god, I have to do this." I didn't even know who Sondheim was, but I did know about Hal Prince. So, I called his office and when he answered the phone, he said to me, "You're the 'Both Sides Now' girl, I know about you." When I told him I wanted to do "Send in the Clowns," he said to me, "Judy, why? Two hundred people have already recorded it." And I said, "I don't care. I want to do it anyway. Who do I ask to orchestrate it for me?" So, he told me to call Jonathan Tunick, who is such a delicious orchestrator, and the result is a song that is still played all over the world.

What did Sondheim think of your recording?
Ironically, I didn't even meet Stephen until we were both at a fundraiser for the ERA in 1978. He was very effusive, threw his arms around me, and said thank you for recording that. Many years later, Hal – who I used to have lunch with often in the last few years of his life – told me my recording made all the difference to the song's popularity. In fact, he told me more than once that Sondheim didn't really like the song itself.

So how come you didn't do a whole Sondheim album for another 30 years?

I was going to do a whole album in 1993; in fact, I went to see him at his townhouse on East 49th Street and we had such a lovely lunch. Nonesuch Records said they would produce this album, but only if Stephen would play piano on one of his songs. Anyway, Stephen gave me a set of cassettes from the backers' auditions from every one of his early shows. On them, Hal would talk and Stephen would sing and play his songs. I thought a lot about what I wanted to sing, but unfortunately, Stephen got too busy and couldn't play on the album, so Nonesuch canceled the deal. I am so grateful I made my own Sondheim album finally – even if took until 2015.

You've been very open about your life's ups and downs in your various books. Would you be open to some sort of bio-musical like Beautiful or a show like Girl From the North Country?
Absolutely! I've been trying for years, working with my good friend Marshall Brickman to come up with something for Broadway. I'd love to be the one onstage, but the difficulty of me doing a show eight times a week is daunting. And if we did it like Beautiful, which I loved, I have absolutely no idea who would play me. But I promise you, it will happen!