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.