Marni Nixon on West Side Story: “It’s a work of art”

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in West Side Story

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in West Side Story

In the run up to the 50th anniversary release of West Side Story, Park Circus managing director, Nick Varley, caught up with famed and accomplished vocal performer Marni Nixon for a chat about her career in the movies and experiences on West Side Story.

Nick Varley: Can I first ask how you became involved in vocal dubbing in the movies?

Marni Nixon: In those days when I was doing the dubbing I was just at the beginning of my career doing a lot of singing and chamber music there in Los Angeles where I lived. But doing dubbing work in the movies paid the bills. I was doing jingles and commercials and a lot of interesting things like that and I also had three kids so had to make a living.

Of course one of your first assignments was Joan of Arc (1948) which starred Ingrid Bergman.

That is one of the first things I did. It wasn’t really dubbing but the soundtrack included the voices of angels and things – I had a very angelic voice [laughs].

I read that you helped Marilyn Monroe with some of her singing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Is that true?

Yes, some of the high notes she evidently wasn’t able to do to their (studio Twentieth Century Fox) satisfaction and I had to imitate her sound and do it in the pitch of the particular song, I think it was Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend. But it was just a few notes actually, no big deal.

Then of course the three big movie musicals you are known for are The King And I, My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Could you talk me through how that worked. Were you auditioned for the roles?

The King and I, which was the first big one, I did for Deborah Kerr. They had hired somebody else to do Deborah’s voice but unfortunately she had a quick but serious illness and she died just a week before the dubbing was supposed to take place, so they were running around desperately trying to find someone and they knew me, as I was around the studios a lot and did incidental things. I was also known in LA as a concert and opera singer, so they just called me in and I quickly made a tape. They sent it to Richard Rogers, he approved of it, and I had the job in a week and then we started filming.

Of course, vocal dubbing was a profession for many people at the time and there were other people in your position who provided a voice for on-screen talent.

Yes, well I think there always has been and there always will be and still is.

And do you think, although it’s a shame we don’t see many movie musicals these days in cinemas, it would be possible and the audience would accept vocal dubbing of on screen talent today?

Well, I assume they would try not to have it dubbed. They would try to have someone doing the role that could do their own soundtrack. I think now that it’s known [by the public] that this is going on they would really have to. I don’t know. I can’t think that the actress who was being dubbed would want it to be known they were being dubbed.

On that very subject if we turn to My Fair Lady, that was the big issue there; no one was supposed to know Audrey Hepburn was being dubbed.

That’s true and Audrey herself thought that she didn’t get the [Oscar] nomination for the role because it had been rumoured that she hadn’t done her own singing. She felt bad about that. She felt she was snubbed. I always think that at that same time, it was Julie Andrews (who had done Mary Poppins) who was nominated because everyone was for her and wanted to give her credit. It was nothing against Audrey Hepburn, it’s just that everyone was for Julie Andrews – whatever she did.

Of course Julie Andrews had played the role of Eliza in the West End and on Broadway and everyone assumed she would get the film too but she hadn’t been seen on screen and wasn’t a big enough name for such a large budget film.

Right, they wanted someone who was more of a star name in movies.

So tell me, how did Julie Andrews feel towards you when she met you on The Sound of Music, because we actually get to see you as well as hear you in that film?

Julie Andrews was a dear, absolutely wonderful. I was actually on my way to audition for the very first revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway after we filmed The Sound of Music. In fact, the day after we stopped filming I got on a plane and flew to New York to audition and I had gone the day before to Julie and she actually helped me with one of the scenes that I was having trouble with – trying to figure out how to play the scene – and she was very helpful and gave me all sorts of pointers and was wonderful.

Turning specifically to West Side Story. From what I understand Natalie Wood had pre-recorded all the songs, she filmed to the playback but the studio felt she simply was not strong enough to carry it off.

Yes, but they had me there the whole time because they knew that her voice was going to be thrown out but they allowed her to record beforehand so she could mouth to her own soundtrack. They didn’t want to let her know they were going to throw that out because she would be very angry and would have left the picture before the end of filming. So they had me standing by all the time, waiting for her to complete filming and then afterwards I came back to earphones and dubbed in her voice.

How difficult was that? Presumably on previous films you had recorded the music first and the actor filmed to your vocal?

Exactly, it was very difficult, as they had not noticed she was not in sync sometimes, I guess on the theory they were going to throw it out anyway and it didn’t matter. But they didn’t realise her lips were moving to the way she was singing. So it was quite difficult, I had to pick places where I could hedge a little bit and not be with her lips but at least be with the soundtrack and other places when her lips were not shown on the film but she was singing I could be exactly with the soundtrack. So there were a lot of technical things going on there.

And was it doubly difficult because the part of Maria is that of a young Puerto Rican girl and Natalie Wood has to affect the accent in the film. Presumably that has to be taken into consideration?

Of course, and in The King and I it had been a British accent, although, Deborah Kerr called it “mid-Atlantic” and now this was Puerto Rican. It was also Natalie’s interpretation of Puerto Rican and so I really had to take it from her and it and just had to imitate whatever she did.

I understand that there were a number of actors who felt that the dubbing went too far. It wasn’t just Natalie Wood who was dubbed but Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn were also given vocal makeovers.

Maybe so, I don’t know, but they [the filmmakers] were perfectionists. I never heard their soundtracks [the actors]. I think what happens sometimes is that the actors do not realise how they record in a set up such as this; where the soundtrack is so intense and right in front of your face so to speak and so some of the imperfections in their voices that they could get away with, maybe on stage, couldn’t be sustained on film. That was the theory. I never had a chance to judge, except for Natalie, what they did.

Of course, the score for West Side Story is difficult and the range was challenging.

Exactly, it’s not like singing a popular or incidental song. It had to be with the score. You can adjust it a little as far as transpose but not much and you had to sustain that kind of voice throughout all the complicated very highly written things and it had to be in the same voice. It’s really very difficult.

I hear you had to help out Rita Moreno on one number too.

Yes, although, Rita is a singer too she wasn’t advised until the last minute she was going to be dubbed and I don’t think she approved of it. Rita is a good singer herself. I think it was a disservice to her.

Betty Wand did Rita’s dubbing but you helped out when Betty fell ill?

During the Quintet when they are singing a duet, the two women with the men coming in and out. At the recording session Rita and Betty were ill and so they said Marni you do both voices then! So I tried to disguise my voice a little and make a different sound, which I was evidently able to, so nobody noticed the difference. So I am actually singing a duet with myself.

How involved, if any, were Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in the recording of the music for the film?

I think Bernstein would have wanted to be but he was doing something else. So he just left it to the powers that be and wasn’t on the set at all.

Johnny Green was the musical arranger, so you were in safe hands.

Yes, but it was Saul Chaplin who was the vocal master there and was really supervising all the singing.

Well, just to finish off. It’s hard to believe we are celebrating the 50th anniversary because the film still looks so contemporary and relevant. Looking back at it now what do you think.

Well, it’s a work of art and everyone’s performance is spectacular. I hear that the new print and Blu-ray are wonderful with new sound. I think the new print is going to look fantastic and I’m looking forward to it.

It still looks so fresh, as if it could have been made yesterday.

I think you are right. Shakespeare is not a bad subject to have lasted all this time.

Well, Marni thank you so much for your time it really has been wonderful speaking to you.

MARNI NIXON will be touring with her one-woman show later in the year. You can find out more about Marni’s upcoming tour and her amazing life at her website www.marninixon.com.

Find out if West Side Story is screening near you in the next four weeks by checking www.backincinemas.com.

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