February 22, 1930 – Film Musical’s most unsung singer Marni Nixon
When doing the songs for a movie musical, the usual technique is to pre-record all the singing before actual filming begins. The main reason for doing this is that during a musical number, actors are typically moving around, often dancing, and if it were recorded with a boom microphone, the distance between the performer and the microphone would vary, creating a vocal track that “comes and goes”.
Most musical numbers use many moving camera shots. Sometimes the camera is on a crane and follows the singing actors around the set or location. Usually four or more crew members are needed for cranes and camera dollies and they always make a certain amount of noise. With the singing actor pre-recording the musical numbers and lip-syncing to their playback during shooting, the crew can make noise because the song playback is blaring out of large speakers.
Plus, a pre-recorded song eliminates any unwanted background noise from the location, giving a “clean” recording. For example, if a scene has a city crowd in the background, and the song were recorded “live”, the people, cars, trucks, even airplanes and weather would compete with the voice. Pre-recording a “clean” musical track and lip-syncing to it on location means that there is no sound competing with the song. During mixing, the sound can be added, and the sound editors have total control over the yelling and honking of horns because it is added later as a sound effect. Think of Barbra Streisand singing Don’t Rain On My Parade on that tugboat in Funny Girl.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals, before digital recording, the songs were pre-recorded both to the optical soundtrack and on to phonograph records. On the soundstage or outdoor location, they were played back via the phonograph.
In film production, “dubbing” usually refers to audio recorded after the shooting of the scene, because the dialogue was poorly recorded originally or because of noise on location, or sometimes, because it’s being dubbed into another language.
Also, musical numbers are pre-recorded as opposed to sung “live” because during any number of shots the performer must be able to repeat exactly what they do from take to take, including the same pacing and expression in the song.
In the film version of the musical Les Miserable (2012), rather than pre-recording the songs with an orchestra and then lip-synching on the set, the actors were given ear pieces that fed them a live piano accompaniment while they sang. The director, Tom Hooper called this “groundbreaking”; in the case of Russell Crowe, I found it to be les miserable.
Before filming West Side Story (1961), director/producer Robert Wise, co-director Jerome Robbins, and musical director Irwin Kostal lied to poor Natalie Wood and told her that her singing was just terrific during the pre-recording of the songs. When Marni Nixon came in to sing with the very same orchestra, the players all knew her from her symphony orchestra appearances and they applauded. Wood filmed the songs to her own small vocals, and then Nixon came in and laboriously dubbed every note, without Wood knowing. When Wood finally understood that Nixon would be doing all her singing and not just some of the notes, she walked off the set and did not return for a week.
For The King and I (1956), Deborah Kerr had no problem being dubbed and she asked that Nixon be in on her rehearsals, so that the voice would match the acting intentions, making it seem as if both spoken dialogue and singing were the same voice made by two different artists. If you listen to the soundtrack, you can hear how Kerr and Nixon trade lines that are spoken and lines that are sung to meld into one perfect performance. Not so true with West Side Story.
“Deborah wanted also to look like she was really singing and wanted to be seen using the same muscles. I stretched my neck in the same way and altered the shape of my mouth to emulate hers.”
Wood in West Side Story, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964), Kerr in The King And I, Rosalind Russell in Gypsy, their singing voices were all dubbed by Nixon. If only Russell Crowe had agreed do the same.
In the film industry this is known as “ghost singing”, rather than dubbing. Because Nixon went uncredited in these films, Time Magazine called her “The Ghostess with the Mostest”.
Nixon got her start in showbiz in 1947, when Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer’s powerful personal secretary at MGM and a pal of Nixon’s mother, got her a job delivering mail around the studio to pay for her singing lessons.
Nixon’s ghost singing career began when she sang the voices of the angels heard by Ingrid Bergman in Joan Of Arc (1948). The same year, she provided Margaret O’Brien’s singing voice in Big City and then 1949’s The Secret Garden. Nixon was not only a truly great singer, she was a nimble mimic; in Big City she does 10-year-old O’Brien doing her take on a nightclub singer played by Betty Garrett.
She was so good at this, that Nixon was engaged to sing for Jeanne Crain in Cheaper By The Dozen (1950) and do Marilyn Monroe’s top notes for Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). She was the voice of Ida Lupino in Jennifer (1953).
In 1957, Kerr requested Nixon to do her singing voice in An Affair to Remember, the same year that she also sang for Sophia Loren in Boy On A Dolphin. She was Janet Leigh’s singing voice in Pepe (1960).
For West Side Story, Nixon also ghost sang Rita Moreno’s voice in the Tonight quintet, in harmony with her voice for Wood, having to distinguish each voice from the other using different timbres. She asked Robert Wise for royalties for her work, but Wise declined. Instead, composer Leonard Bernstein gave her 1/4 of one percent of his royalties from it.
In 1962, Wood did her owning singing in Gypsy, but Nixon still ghost sang Wood’s high notes.
Despite being heard in all those classic movie musicals, Nixon can only be seen on film twice, briefly in the chorus of Can-Can (1960), and as one of the nuns who wants to know How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? in The Sound Of Music (1965), again working for Wise. Interestingly, she does not do Peggy Wood’s singing as Mother Abbess in The Sound Of Music, it was done by Margery McKay. Nixon, recommend McKay because she sounded like Wood when she was young.
Nixon’s final film voice work was as the grandmother in Disney animation Mulan (1998). She played Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret (1997–98) and appeared in stage productions of The King And I and The Sound Of Music. She was in James Joyce’s The Dead on Broadway in 2000, and as a former operetta star in the Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies in 2002. In 2003, she was on Broadway in the revival of Nine and in the 2009 Encores! production of the 1932 Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern musical Music In The Air. Her last stage performance was in a 2008 tour of My Fair Lady in the role of Mrs. Higgins.
Nixon was married three times, including to film composer Ernest Gold (1921-1999). Their son, Andrew Gold (1951-2011) was the singer/songwriter who created the theme song Thank You For Being A Friend for The Golden Girls.
Her terrific memoir is titled I Could Have Sung All Night (2006), written with my friend Stephen Cole.
Nixon was pushed out of the closet as a ghost singer, previously sworn to secrecy, in a bold publicity tour for the film of My Fair Lady, even appearing on the panel television show To Tell the Truth. Her final bow was in the summer of 2016 when she was taken by cancer. She was 86-years-old.