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Desert SongThe Desert Song

Book and Lyrics by Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II and Frank Mandel
Music by Sigmund Romberg

Casino Theatre, Broadway 30 November, 1926 (465 perfs)
Produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1927 (432 perfs)

The Desert Song is currently unavailable for production by either professional or amateur companies in the UK


General Birabeau has been sent to Morocco to root out and destroy the Riff bandits. Especially must he bring to book their daredevil leader, known as the Red Shadow. He can look for little help from his milksop son, Pierre, who spends all his time mooning over Captain Fontaine's fiancée, the lovely Margot. But Margot secretly yearns to be swept into the arms of some bold, dashing sheik, perhaps even the Red Shadow himself? To her surprise, when her Eastern hero does in fact abduct her he treats her with every Western consideration. And when this Moroccan Robin Hood comes face to face with Birabeau, he surprisingly refuses to fight the old man. Azuri, the sinuous and secretive native dancing girl, might be persuaded to answer some of these riddles if only she can be made sufficiently drunk. Meanwhile, Benny and Susan still provide some of the best opportunities for inspired clowning ever offered to a comedy team.


Act 1

In their Moroccan hideout, deep in the Riff mountains, a group of anti-French Arab guerillas are taking their ease. Their activities over the past years, under the leadership of the mysterious Red Shadow, have been increasingly successful and this very day they have blown up a strategic French dam, liberating the waters to fertilise once again the Arabs' traditional farming lands, yet there is no complacency in their hearts. Over recent weeks they have found themselves under increased pressure, owing to the redoubled activity of the French military under their new commander, Captain Paul Fontaine, and they have several times come near to discovery and annihilation.

Their skill in the desert and the speed of their horses have saved them, but it is said that Captain Fontaine has promised to bring the head of the Red Shadow as a gift to his fiancée, Margot Bonvalet, on their wedding day. The men would like to make a strike against this woman, but their leader will not permit it. Margot Bonvalet is not their enemy and she must under no circumstances be banned.

The truth is that, under his Arab disguise, the Red Shadow is himself a Frenchman, Pierre Birabeau. Eight years earlier he left Paris and joined the army in Morocco in an effort to win sufficient glory to be able to pay court to this very Margot Bonvalet but, in resisting orders to raid Arab villages, he fell foul of the colonial administration and was publicly struck to the ground by the Governor as a traitor. Resigning from the army, he feigned a brain-damaged foolishness in everyday life while creating his position as an Arab Robin Hood in secret. When his enemy, the Governor, died, he was ironically succeeded by none other than Pierre's own father and now Pierre lives in Government House itself, still keeping up his role as a fool before his family while leading the Arabs against his father's men as the Red Shadow. And now his Margot is here, in Morocco, to wed Paul Fontaine, the son of his old enemy.

The Riff hideout receives an unexpected visitor when the Red Shadow's men capture a funny little fellow wandering about in the desert. He is Benjamin Kidd of the Paris Daily Mail. Normally a society columnist, he has been sent to Morocco as an emergency war correspondent, and he is decidedly lost in his new job, both metaphorically and in fact. Today he went riding with Pierre Birabeau, the Governor's silly son, got separated from him, and fell into the hands of this bloodthirsty band.

Bennie's life is saved by the Red Shadow's intervention and the men decide that, in return, he must agree to act as a spy at the French headquarters. The Riffs and their leader gallop off to pursue a dangerously approaching division of Fontaine's troops but, no sooner have they departed, than Fontaine leads his men into the encampment. The hideout of the Riffs is discovered. He sets up guards with machine guns to kill all who should return, and triumphantly envisages his victorious return to his 'Margot'. Amongst the rocks, however, hides, one to whom that name is anathema: the Arab dancing girl, Azuri, with whom Fontaine had been involved in his earlier days in Morocco. Not without great anguish will she allow her rival to wed the man she loves.

Back at Government House, Bennie Kidd's secretary, Susan, is worrying and sighing over her adorable little boss, and she is relieved when he turns up not too much the worse for wear with horse-weary buttocks and a pretty tall line in newspaper copy. The other soldiers' ladies are more bored than worried: their lives in this colony, with their husbands and lovers out chasing Arabs all the time, are dreary, and they are delighted when Margot livens things up a bit by purloining some military uniforms for a little charade (French Military Marching Song) to keep them amused.

Margot hasn't found life in Morocco at all to her taste. She imagined it to be a deliciously romantic place where all sorts of splendidly Elinor Glyn adventures would happen, but she just sits at home and watches her fiancé going through the daily grind of military business and longs for a little ‘Romance' in her life, At least, today, there is a bit of drama, for the returning Paul announces that he has discovered the Red Shadow's lair and laid an ambush for him. Silly Pierre, who has brought Margot some flowers, cannot resist putting in a question as to what will happen if the Arabs should never return to that camp.

Alone with Margot, Pierre tentatively tries to emerge from his image as a harmless friend with an offer of a gentle kind of love, but Margot is set on a very different course. She gets Fontaine to show Pierre how a man should woo and leaves him, maddened at being unable to step from behind his disguise, to dance off with her fiancé.

Bennie, in spite of his sworn oath, doesn't want to be an Arab spy. He doesn't want to be anything that involves knives and guns and things, and he's determined to catch the very next train back to France. He also doesn't want to have anything to do with the clinging Susan. She's not his type at all—she doesn't have 'It'.

Azuri comes to Government House in secret to try to win back the love of Paul Fontaine. She promises that she will reveal to him the identity of the Red Shadow if he will forget Margot and leave with her, but she is rejected by the disbelieving Fontaine and thrown out by General Birabeau, and she departs threatening a real vengeance. Worried at her words, Birabeau thinks it might be best for Fontaine to lie low a little while. He should wed Margot immediately and leave on a French ship due to berth that very night.

Margot, overhearing the conversation, is furious. She does not wish to wed anyone yet. She has not lived. The distressed girl is left alone with her longings for adventure until adventure comes surely to her in the shape of the Red Shadow. He appears from nowhere to stand passionately beside her, offering her romance amid desert sands and under moonlit skies and she replies by striking him across the face with her whip in a manner doubtless culled from a romantic novel. By the time she has recovered sufficiently to cry for help, he has vanished.

When Fontaine hears that his prey is so close he determines to set out in pursuit immediately, but Margot stops him. If he does so, they will miss their ship. He must choose: either take the Red Shadow or marry her. It seems that Fontaine must relinquish his quarry but, as the wedding preparations begin, the Riff fires are seen on the nearby hills and he cannot resist giving, chase. He vows that he will return with the Red Shadow's turban to celebrate their wedding. No sooner has he left, however than the Riffs invade the house. There is none to resist them, and the Red Shadow takes the fainting Margot off in his arms to the desert

Act 2

At the palace of All Ben Ali, in the Riff Hills, while a group of captive Spanish dancing girls are being looked over as potential harem material, the courtesan Clementina entertains with a more graphic description of their profession. With his own camp put hors de combat, the Red Shadow has chosen the home of the helpful Ali as the place to bring his captives. Margot has struggled all the way, in the fashion of the best of romantic heroines, but Susan hasn't struggled at all, though she might as well have for, all the good it has done her In fact, as soon as she has been bundled off to the bath, she has a rival, for the amorous Clementina, who has a special taste for weak Englishmen, targets in on Bennie who quickly looks like being 'One Good Man Gone Wrong' before he can have any say in the matter.

Bennie takes the first possible chance to get out of this place. When the Red Shadow proposes to send Susan back to Fez to tell Birabeau that Margot is safe, Bennie changes clothes with her, but he is discovered and faced with a dusty death by exposure in the desert as a punishment for his cowardly attempt at escape.

Meanwhile, there is discontent in the Riff ranks for the men are unhappy that their raids are being used not to further their cause but to aid their leader in his love affair. The Red Shadow challenges any one of them to dispute his leadership and, when there is no reply, he charges them to hold to their oath and follow him in everything as they have sworn. Ali cannot understand that he should go to such pains for a woman: in his Eastern view a woman and the love of a woman are treasured but ephemeral things. To the Red Shadow, however, there is only this one woman and for her he will risk all.

The Red Shadow visits Margot in her room but, when he attempts to woo her in manly style, he is taken aback to hear her say that her heart is given to Pierre Birabeau. She has been cured of her romantic notions. The Red Shadow promises that, if this is so, he will no longer pursue her. She shall leave here as Pierre's bride. When he has gone, Margot agonises over her feelings. By all rights she should stab this man to the heart with the sabre he has laid before her, but she cannot. Is she in love with him? When Pierre appears before her, anxious to claim her as his wife, she tells him that she used him only as an excuse to put her captor off, but she confides in him that she almost wishes the Red Shadow would resolve her dilemma by taking her by force.

Pierre retires to take on his alter ego, but, when the Red. Shadow returns to tell Margot that he is taking, her off into the desert, he is brought face to face with General Birabeau whom the treacherous Azuri has led to the palace. The General offers to fight the Red Shadow for Margot's freedom but Pierre is unable to lift his sword against his own father and, before the amazed eyes of his band, he refuses. By this act, he forfeits his rights at the head of the Riff band and is condemned to be loosed alone in the desert to survive or die.

Birabeau brings Margot back to Fez to great acclaim but Paul can see in Margot's eyes what has happened and he vows that, in spite of the standing order to capture the Red Shadow alive, he will bring him in dead. Bennie and Susan also arrive back. They have survived an ordeal of two days and nights in the desert and are pale and weak but, it emerges, they have found out one thing. Apparently Susan does have 'It'.

Azuri, too, puts in an appearance. She has come to claim her reward and her revenge and she takes both. With the money in her hand she drunkenly reveals to Birabeau the true reason why the Red Shadow would not fight him. The rebel leader is his own son and now, under his orders, Fontaine has gone out to hunt him down to the death.

But, like Bennie and Susan Pierre has survived his desert ordeal and made his way safely back to Government House. Since he can no longer lead the Riffs, he has made a plan that will allow him finally to give up the feeble persona he has worn. He presents himself before his father with the clothes and sword of the Red Shadow and announces that he has beaten Fontaine to the blow: he has fought and killed the Red Shadow. But his father knows the truth. This tale will do for the world at large and, now, with Pierre at his side he will work for a better understanding with the local people. Margot, distraught at the news of the death of the hero she loved, faces up furiously to Pierre only to come finally to a realisation of the truth in his arms.

Adapted from Gänzl's Book of the Musical Theatre

For the Chorus 

Chorus work weaves into the romantic tale of adventure in a way that ensures it will never lose its appeal for cast or audience alike. Stirring numbers are alternated with endearing love songs, all richly harmonized. The chorus appear as Riffs, French soldiers and their wives and sweethearts, harem girls, Spanish courtesans, native dancers.

Singing Principals 

Margot Bonvalet
Susan, an incompetent newspaper reporter's lovesick secretary
Clementina, Spanish courtesan
Pierre, the Red Shadow
Sid El Kar, his Riff lieutenant
Captain Paul Fontaine, of the French Foreign Legion
Benny, Susan's boss
Ali Ben Ali, Caid of a Riff tribe.

Straight Roles

General Birabeau

Smaller Roles

Neri, a Riff woman.
Edith, Susan's friend.  
Hadji, a Riff farmer
Hassi, of the Red Shadow's band.
Lt La Verne and Sgt De Boussae, Foreign Legionnaires.

Scenes and Settings

Act I

Act II


1st and 2nd Violins, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Flute, Oboe, 2 Clarinets, Bassoon, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, Trombone, Drums, Harp

Musical Numbers:


  1. PRELUDE AND OPENING CHORUS … (High on a hill is our stronghold)
  2. SONG (Red Shadow) … SID & RIFFS … " The Riff Song " (Over the ground there comes a sound)
    2A REPRISE (Ho! bold men of Morocco)
  4. SONG (Paul) & SOLDIERS … " Margot " (O! pretty maid of France)
  5. OPENING — SCENE II. & SONG (Susan) … "I'll be a buoyant girl" … (Has anybody seen my Bennie?)
  6. OPENING CHORUS — SCENE III … (Why did we marry soldiers?)
  7. FRENCH MILITARY MARCHING SONG … (Margot) & GIRLS (Oh! Girls, girls, here are cavaliers)
  8. SONG … (Margot) & GIRLS " Romance " .. .. (Romance — a play boy)
  9. DUET (Margot and Pierre) & CHORUS … "Then you will know " (My passion is not to crash on and woo)
  10. TRIO (Margot, Paul and Pierre) & CHORUS " I want a Kiss " .. (What's the noise, what's the row?)
  11. DUET (Susan and Bennie) & GIRLS … "It" … (There was a time)
  12. DUET (Margot and Red Shadow) … " The Desert Song " (I open my arms)
  13. FINALE — ACT I … (Won't you wish us luck)


  2. OPENING CHORUS … (My little castagnette)
  3. SONG … (Clementina) & GIRLS … "Song of the Brass Key" … (On the streets of Spain)
    16B REPRISE … (Give him the key)
  4. DUET … (Clementina and Bennie) … " One good boy gone wrong" … (Bold women, please unhand me)
  5. CONCERTED NUMBER … (Red Shadow, Sid, Ali) & MEN … Eastern & Western Love … (Let love come as some rare treasure)
    (a) " Let Love go "
    (b) " One flower in your garden "
    (c) " One alone "
  7. SCENE … (Margot and Red Shadow) … " The Sabre Song " … (I find the simple life entrancing)
  8. FINALETTO—SCENE III … (You love me)
  9. SCENE IV … "Farewell" … (Low, it means the Riffs)
  10. OPENING — SCENE V & ENTRANCE OF SUSAN AND BENNIE … (All hail to the General)
  11. REPRISE (Susan and Bennie) & GIRLS … "It" … (Because I didn't know)
  12. DANCE OF TRIUMPH … (Azuri) … (As we are drinking)
  13. FINALE … (Soldiers, when the battle is over)