The Desert Song is an operetta with music by Sigmund Romberg and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach, inspired by the 1925 uprising of the Riffs, a group of Moroccan fighters, against French colonial rule. It was also inspired by stories of Lawrence of Arabia aiding native guerillas. Many tales romanticizing Arab North Africa were in vogue, including Beau Geste and The Son of the Sheik.
Originally titled "Lady Fair" (see illustration), after successful out-of-town tryouts in Wilmington, Delaware and Boston, Massachusetts, the original Broadway production opened at the Casino Theatre on November 30 1926 and ran for a very successful 465 performances. It was directed by Arthur Hurley and choreographed by Bobby Connolly. It starred Robert Halliday and Vivienne Segal. The piece was revived in the late 1940s at New York City Center. Only rarely professionally revived, the piece enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s when it was played regularly by the Light Opera of Manhattan and revived by the New York City Opera. It is a popular piece for community light opera groups.
In 1929, a lavish production was filmed, with Technicolor sequences and starring John Boles and Myrna Loy. This version captured the spirit of the original Broadway production and became a huge hit. To capitalize on the success of the original picture, Warner Bros. released a two-reel adaptation of the film in 1932 entitled The Red Shadow. By the 1940s, the original 1929 film had become illegal to view or exhibit in the United States due to its Pre-Code content which included sexual innuendo, lewd suggestive humor and open discussion of themes such as homosexuality. Apparently, the Technicolor sequences have survived only in black-and-white.
A third cleaned-up color feature version was made in 1953, with most of the adult themes and humor being removed or sanitized. This version altered the plot to make General Birabeau the father of Margot, rather than the father of the Red Shadow, as in the play. It starred Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae. Both the 1943 and the 1953 films changed the hero's name from the Red Shadow to El Khobar. In the 1953 version, El Khobar's disguise was that of a mild-mannered Latin teacher who tutored Margot and had to fend off her amorous advances (which were fairly discreet by modern standards).
Another clean version was adapted for live television in 1955 (with Gale Sherwood and Nelson Eddy, and Salvatore Baccaloni imported from the Metropolitan Opera to play Ali Ben Ali). One of the writers brought in to modernize some unplayable dialogue was the young Neil Simon.
To her surprise, Margot's mysterious abductor treats her with every western consideration. When the Red Shadow comes face to face with General Birabeau, the old man challenges the rebel leader to a duel. Of course Pierre will not kill his own father, so he refuses to fight, losing the respect of the Riff. Azuri, the sinuous and secretive native dancing girl, might be persuaded to answer some of these riddles if only she can be persuaded by Captain Fontaine. Meanwhile Benny, a reporter, and Susan provide comic relief. Eventually, the Red Shadow's identity is discovered, a deal is struck with the Riff, and Pierre and Margot live happily ever after.
Also from the show were "Dreaming In Paradise," "Love's Dear Yearning," and "Let's Have a Love Affair." Two songs from The Desert Song are among the operetta and Broadway musical songs lampooned in the 1959 musical Little Mary Sunshine. "The Riff Song" and "The Desert Song" are the respective targets of "The Forest Rangers" (it also parodies several other "gallant warriors" songs, such as "Stout-Hearted Men") "The Desert Song," a hero-sings-to-heroine waltz, is parodied by "You're the Fairest Flower," another hero-sings-to-heroine waltz.
A more complete recording starring Nelson Eddy was made by Columbia Records in 1953. This has long been the preferred recording of this score and was available on LP though to the end of the vinyl era, but it is not yet available on CD. Around the same time, Gordon MacRae recorded a 10-inch Lp for Capitol of the score. It was later repackaged on one side of a 12-inch album (Kern's Roberta is on the reverse), but that album has been out-of-print since the late 1960s. MacRae also starred in the 1953 film version. His co-star Kathryn Grayson recorded selections with Tony Martin on a 10-inch record for RCA Victor, which is long out of print.
Victor also recorded Mario Lanza in highlights from the score. Released shortly after the singer's death, it became one of his best-selling Lp's and is now available on CD, paired with The Student Prince.
Readers Digest include a selection in their album A Treasury of Great Operettas, first offered for sale in 1963. This stereo recording is available on CD. Also in 1963 as part of a series of stereo recordings of classic operettas, Capitol had MacRae and Dorothy Kirsten record a full album of the score. Most of it can be heard on the EMI CD Music of Sigmund Romberg, along with selections from The Student Prince and The New Moon.
A British studio cast album stars Edmund Hockeridge and June Bronhill. After being unavailable for many years, it has finally been reissued on CD.