By Peter Filichia –
Remember the 1965 film The Great Race?
In it, the famous ‘20s daredevil known as The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is intent on getting lovely journalist Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood) into bed. He’s got to set the perfect romantic mood, of course, so he must choose just the right music.
And so, the record he plays is the title tune to The Desert Song.
Interesting that The Great Leslie chose “The Desert Song” — or “Blue Heaven,” as it’s become chummily known, from the first line of its refrain. While it’s a quite romantic song, he could have chosen the just-as-rapturous “One Alone.”
(Perhaps its title made this ladies’ man decide against it; it does, after all, suggest commitment.)
Leslie could have also played “I Want a Kiss,” but, as the film shows, he wanted substantially more than a smooch.
On the other hand, The Great Leslie didn’t have that many options. The American original cast album hadn’t yet happened, so the entire score hadn’t yet been recorded. He would have had more choices if the year were 1958, when RCA Victor released a studio recording of The Desert Song in, as the label loved to proclaim, “Living Stereo.” This forty-seven-minute recording – with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II and Frank Mandel — is now available on CD and for digital download.
Considering that The Desert Song is an operetta – a form that was already waning when the show had its Broadway premiere in 1926 – this show has had an amazing history. There’s never been a decade in which The Desert Song hasn’t shown itself in one way or another.
First came the Broadway run from late 1926 through early 1928. Its 471 performances were enough to secure fourteenth place on modern Broadway’s long-run musical list. What’s more, it inspired one of the earliest talking pictures: the 1929 stage-bound but still entertaining version had upcoming star Myrna Loy in a supporting role.
During the ‘30s, it was a rare community theater that didn’t produce The Desert Song. Perhaps some directors were inspired to do the entire operetta after seeing the short subject that was produced in 1932. Although it was called The Red Shadow and not The Desert Song, everyone knew its source.
“The Red Shadow” was a brave Moroccan intent on leading his band of Riff revolutionaries over an oppressive French government. He was one of two Desert Song male leads; the other was Pierre Birabeau, the thoroughly unmasculine son of the French general. Surprise! They’re one and the same. The fetching Margot will only fall in love with the former, of course – and will stay in love even after he kidnaps her. (We may be in Morocco, but Margot manages to have The Stockholm Syndrome.)
In this short subject, there was room for only one song, but it was one of the best: “The Riff Song,” where the revolutionaries warn their foes that they “will strike with a blow that brings you woe.” (Note to late twentieth century musical theater aficionados: if you liked “Into the Fire” from The Scarlet Pimpernel, you’ll love “The Riff Song.”)
1943 brought The Desert Song’s first color film. This would be more impressive if it had retained more than a fraction of the score and not relegated many melodies to background music. Actually, it’s more of an action movie that loosely adapted the Harbach-Hammerstein-Mandel story.
For here The Red Shadow was renamed El Khobar. Was this because red was a big color for the Nazis? Don’t laugh: this version of the story did involve the S.S. who were exploiting locals as inexpensive labor to build their railroads. Actually, most assume that the name change occurred because America was then an ally with the USSR.
In the next remake in 1953, he was again El Khobar. Now “red” may have been dropped because the color had become a dirty word in those Cold War times. On the other hand, when Nelson Eddy did a reasonably faithful TV version of The Desert Song in 1955, he was The Red Shadow (and Pierre).
In the ‘60s, The Desert Song was still getting productions in summer stock. Producer Moe Septee saw one in Pennsylvania, and decided to produce a first-class Broadway revival, which he did in 1973.
I went to see its pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Before the show, I was in my front-row orchestra seat when a very old man, whose both gnarled hands were clasping a cane, slowly walked toward the empty seat next to me. How gingerly he gripped the armrests as he eased himself into the seat. But, oh, once the overture started, his hands obtained a new life as he began to semi-conduct those songs he’d loved for forty-seven years. I enjoyed taking my eyes from the stage every now and then looking at his face. The wrinkles had somehow disappeared and the young man that once was there returned – the same man who might very well have seduced his love by playing the title song on his Victrola.
In 1987, to mark Romberg’s centenary, New York City Opera mounted its first Desert Song. It was a terrific production, but the actor who most caught my eye was a comic-relief performer. Even the way he turned out his foot got a laugh because it was precisely right for the fey character. He was Philip W. McKinley, who has since gone on to direct The Boy from Oz and Spider-Man.
In the ‘90s, The Muny – that massively wonderful theater in St. Louis – trotted out The Desert Song for the thirteenth time. Since its 1930 debut, no musical except for Show Boat has ever received more airings at the famed outdoor showplace.
In 2002, one abbreviated The Desert Song recording was reissued and now, ten years later, here’s a more complete one from fifty-four years ago. It starred Giorgio Tozzi, whom you of course know from his providing Rosanno Brazzi’s voice in the South Pacific film. Margot was sung by Kathy Barr, a Mario Lanza discovery who’d played Margot here and there, although you’d never know it from her Julie London-esque pop recordings that were surfacing at the time. Peter Palmer – yes, the original Li’l Abner – played one of The Red Shadow’s henchmen. Conducting was Lehman Engel, whose birthday we all celebrated last Friday.
In the ‘20s, there were three theories why The Desert Song became a hit: 1) it was based on a real vigilante’s attempts to liberate Northern Morocco from Spanish rule; 2) it referenced some of the then-famous Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits; 3) it opened not long after Rudolph Valentino became a sensation with The Sheik. Fine – but how do you explain the last nine decades?