Sigmund Romberg wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the words for this composition for the musical New Moon, which premiered in New York at the Imperial Theater on September 19, 1928. Actor Robert Halliday introduced the song in the show. Another song from the musical, “Lover, Come Back to Me,” was recorded by a number of artists and had three recordings in the charts for 1929. “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” didn’t fare as well, with only this one recording:
Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra (as The Troubadors) (1929, Franklin Baur, vocal, #5)
The presentation of “Softly…” in New Moon was more in the nature of an operatic performance, which seems to have hindered its adaptation by dance orchestras. Oddly enough, neither of the two big hits (“Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Lover, Come Back To Me”) were in the original production that premiered in Cleveland. The show flopped and in the intervening five months the two composers came up with what would be the two big hits.
The ultimate success of New Moon led to an MGM film version in 1931 starring Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett, although the setting was changed from late-18th century New Orleans to Russia. MGM redid the film in 1940, changing the locale back to the original. The 1940 version featured the singing team of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
New Moon was the last operetta that Sigmund Romberg composed. After the productions closed, he, like many other composers, saw the handwriting on the wall that Hollywood was the place to be. But New Moon had incredible staying power and has successfully been revived a number of times on Broadway, the last time in 2004.
– Chris Tyle, JazzStandards