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Marni Nixon: 'It ended up being totally my voice' | reviews, news & interviews

Marni Nixon: 'It ended up being totally my voice'

Marni Nixon: 'It ended up being totally my voice'

Heard but not seen: the Hollywood legend, who has died, tells the inside story of dubbing Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story'

I've just met a girl named Marni Nixon

Singin’ in the Rain made much of those people in the movies whose work you don’t know you know. Set at the dawn of the talkies, it told of a star of the silent screen with the voice of a foghorn who relied on the angelic pipes of a trained singer parked behind a curtain. Such was the real-life story of Marni Nixon, who has died at the age of 86. You knew her soprano voice intimately. You just didn’t know her name. It was Nixon who sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Nixon who sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I. Those top notes of Marilyn Monroe’s in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”? Nixon’s. But it’s her uncredited contribution to West Side Story that repays retelling.

Natalie Wood was eager to take on all singing duties when cast as Maria. But the creatives had other ideas, while advising Nixon in forceful terms that when not singing she must keep her mouth firmly shut. Her identity emerged only by osmosis. Nixon began lending her voice to Hollywood soundtracks as a very young woman. At 18, she was one of the heavenly voices heard by Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc (1948), and sang for Margaret O’Brien in The Secret Garden a year later. She was doing Monroe’s top notes in 1953. Her parallel career in opera did not take her away from the movies altogether. Nixon made a credited contribution to Disney’s Mulan in 1998. To commemorate one of the great unsung voices, we revisit the interview she gave to theartsdesk about the quiet life of a dubbing artist in the golden age of the Hollywood musical.

JASPER REES: Do you remember the details of how you landed the part of Natalie Wood’s voice double?

MARNI NIXON: The only thing I remember is that in previous films that I had done there was always a preliminary audition or something to see whether it was going to be right. But in this they just called me and put me on a retainer, meaning that I had to come into the studio every single day and just punch in like a day player, I had no contract but they said, “Just stick around, we want you to help with the voice for Natalie Wood.”

However, the situation with Natalie was that she did not want to be dubbed at all. She knew that she probably needed somebody to do her high notes here and there. So they evidently led her to believe that she was going to be doing all the recording. They told me that they were going to re-record it and put my voice in - but they weren’t quite sure how.

It was very vague, the whole thing. But I came in and I wasn’t even able to get into her coaching lessons to hear her or see what she was like and how I was supposed to do the whole thing. The coach that coached me played me some recordings that he had made of their coaching sessions so I could get some idea. I hung around and then eventually she recorded with the orchestra the complete songs of what she thought she was going to be doing. And then they asked me to stand up in the same session and record with the orchestra. They said they were going to combine those tracks. She recorded the whole thing to her own track, thinking it was going to be her voice with some of the high notes by me. But then they told me they were going to throw all that out, which they did after they filmed it all. And then I had to come back.

It sounds like a kind of cloak-and-dagger arrangement.

Yes, it was. After the film was finished I had to then dub in my voice to everything. It ended up being totally my voice. The problem was that they knew they were going to do this switch eventually somehow, but they didn't pay attention to the fact that sometimes she wasn’t really in sync with the soundtrack, so sometimes there were shots in the movie where her lips were out of sync. So they said, “Marni, when you re-record you have to fix that up.” I kept saying, “How can I if I have to be with her lips, and yet her lips are not in sync already?” They said, “You’ve got iron nerves, you fix it up.” So on the long shots I was with the orchestra track, even though I was not with her lips, but on the close-ups I had to be with her lips and hedge a little sometimes. It was very complicated but we got through it, and it was fine, and in the end I really had to do some of her voice acting too.

Marni or Natalie? Compare Nixon and Wood in "Tonight"


Why?

When they shot the end of the picture, I guess they were doing it in sequence and everybody was so punch-drunk and so tired that this very harrowing scene where Tony gets shot and she hovers around him and comes to him and said, “You keeled him! You keeled him!” they evidently were all giggling. As soon as it started to get serious they started to laugh. They finally got to make the shot so it didn’t look like people laughing. But she evidently had some kind of giggle in her voice.

Did you ever meet Natalie Wood?

I did see her afterwards, not for months and months and months after the picture was out, at some other interview, and she nodded to me and said hello, but she was very cool. She didn't say anything overtly nasty, but she had been quite upset of course.

How good a singer was she?

She was good if you were doing like an ordinary pop song or something live where it wasn’t being recorded so specifically. Her voice didn't have quite the core to it that is needed to do a Bernstein score, which is very complicated and has to be done in the exact right pitch; the notes have to be held as long as they’re written. Her voice was a little wavery. But when they had her listening to her playbacks they kept telling her that she was absolutely wonderful, so I think she probably didn't listen to herself very critically. She listened out of her ego instead.

Who was telling her she was wonderful?

All those people and the director. Everybody. It was mean of them, I think, but I guess it’s the only thing they could do. They were afraid she would walk out before the picture was going to be filmed.

RitaMorenoYou also did some other voicing on the film.

At one point the gal who was doing the dubbing for Rita Moreno (pictured left) had a cold and there was going to be a quintet with Anita and Maria. I had to do Anita’s voice too and did a duet with myself. And nobody really knew. I just changed the quality of my voice. I tried to do one very dark and one very light.

What were your feelings about contributing to this much-loved movie musical?

I was absolutely thrilled. It was a major piece of music and all the dubbing things I‘ve done I look at it as a great acting challenge to try to become the fabric of the voice. I never was hired to do any stage production of West Side Story. Somehow I don’t look Puerto Rican enough with my blue eyes and freckles and red hair. But I just loved the piece.

Are you happy with the cards your career dealt you?

Of course at the time when these movies came out and I was told not to let anybody know that I did this, I was very upset and I thought it was very hurtful to me. And then it was also terrifying, because even though I was ordered not to say anything people began to know, because these actresses were not really known as singers and so the question would always arise, how come we haven’t heard her before? There was a whispering campaign: who did the dubbing? That underground knowledge because of the era became very powerful.

Then I was upset because I was threatened when The King and I came out. The studio Fox called me and said if anybody ever found out that I had any part, that they would see to it that I wouldn’t work in town again. I was a concert singer, I was doing operas and all sorts of esoteric recording, but I had to also make my living in the movies. I was doing jingles and commercials. It was good money. When they warned that they would see to it that I wouldn’t work in town again, I really was frightened. But then after West Side Story and My Fair Lady it got to be well known that this sort of thing was going on in Hollywood.

Was it difficult to keep silent?

Of course, I was very silent, but it got around enough so that some of the TV shows would call me and ask me if I would come on and sing a song. It was perfectly logical to me that they would do this, and then if they would ask me during that interview, “Did you do anything with the movies?” I would just say, “I have to take the Fifth Amendment, I cannot say anything.” I realise now just by that fact it showed that I probably did, but I couldn't say anything.

Do you know what Bernstein made of your performance?

I have sung with Leonard Bernstein in many concerts as a soprano soloist, with him conducting the New York Philharmonic. There is a film of me doing the Songs of the Auvergne that was taped from Carnegie Hall, about 1960. He’s always been my friend. I don’t think we ever talked about the dubbing at all. But he had to approve. I’m sure he approved. He loved it.

So there was only one person who didn’t approve.

I guess so. But the success of those pictures proves that I was a good thing.

Natalie Wood probably didn't listen to herself very critically. She listened out of her ego instead

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Comments

Of course she does eventually get to sing as a nun on film (Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music; I note Portia Nelson, another older Broadway leading lady, also appears in the convent). Lovely lady, delightful interview.

Am I correct in thinking the YouTube video has had two soundtracks spliced onto it, rather than the original combined one, if you see what I mean? The sound quality is too poor for it to have been the film's one, so some enthusiast must have uncovered Natalie Wood's recording and added it much later.

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