This week brought the sad news that acclaimed American soprano Marni Nixon has died of breast cancer at the age of 86. Whilst her name may not be household material, she is famed for creating some of the most iconic screen roles and working as one of the most famous voice dubbers in Hollywood history.
Chances are that if you've ever seen the film adaptations of West Side Story, The King and I or My Fair Lady, Nixon's work is familiar to you whether or not you are aware of it. Many of these iconic roles used supplementary vocals to enhance the work of the leading actresses, or in some cases were completely dubbed by Nixon for the entirety of musical numbers. At one point Nixon found herself duetting with herself on the "Tonight Quintet" from West Side Story, where her Soprano was used to dub Natalie Wood as Maria, along with Rita Moreno's track as Anita, a credit that went un recognised in terms of royalties.
Nixon's career was certainly no secret despite the fact that she was not always fully rewarded for her work. It took Leonard Bernstein himself to offer a section of his own royalties following her being excluded from direct royalties as the film soundtrack sold numerous units all over the world.
Her autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night, was published in 2006 and shed further light on her remarkable career that reads like a character from an old Hollywood film. Dubbed "The Ghostess with the Mostest" by Time Magazine her career on stage grew thanks to her film work, and she even made a personal appearance in the 1964 screen version of The Sound of Music in the role of Sister Sophia, contributing to the song "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" in her own voice.
Celebrate the fantastic career of Ms Nixon by enjoying a number of her finest 'off-screen' moments:
Marilyn Monroe - Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend
This song from the 1953 film 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' is perhaps one of the most famous songs attributed to Ms Monroe. Whilst she sang the majority of the vocals for the film soundtrack, her own voice was augmented in two phrases which were both dubbed by Nixon. The line "These rocks don't lose their shape, diamonds are a girl's best friend", and the high pitched "no no no" section at the start of the song both include Nixon's voice:
Deborah Kerr - The King and I
Marni Nixon provided all of the vocals for the film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I in 1956, singing for Deborah Kerr in the role of Anna Leonowens. Iconic songs such as "Getting To Know You", "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?" were seamlessly blended into Kerr's voice, thanks to Nixon's ability to not only sing the required score, but match her voice to Kerr's. The pair sang together in a recording studio in order to blend the spoken word with the singing, highlighted in the clip below where the speak-singing song "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" provided a unique challenge. Nixon was one of three vocal dub artists used on the film which also say Leona Gordon sing for Tuptim and Rueben Fuentes for Lun Tha. The soundtrack of the film reached peak #1 position in the UK charts in 1956, 1957 and 1958.
Natalie Wood - West Side Story
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's musical was released in 1961 and starred Natalie Wood as soprano Maria. The actress was allowed to sing her own vocals on set, and was later dubbed in the studio by Nixon without Wood knowing. Wood pre-recorded her songs and was allowed to lip-synch to her own vocals, believing that they would be used in the final cut. In fact producers had already decided to use Nixon's voice, and Wood's own voice is only heard at the very end of the film in the reprise of "Somewhere". Nixon recorded the songs in the same orchestra sessions as Wood but problems with the syncing made later studio work necessary. Nixon had not signed a contract for the recording and in turn didn't receive and of the grosses from the sale of the soundtrack, something that was later rectified personally by Bernstein who donated 0.25% of his own album royalties. Watch one of the most iconic scenes from the film with Nixon's vocals:
Audrey Hepburn - My Fair Lady
After the battle to play Eliza Doolittle on screen was won by Hepburn, leaving a put-out Julie Andrews to go on to play the title role in Mary Poppins, producers brought in Marni Nixon to dub Hepburn's shrill voice throughout Lerner and Loewe's celebrated score. Nixon sang all songs except the character number "Just You Wait", which left Hepburn's voice un-dubbed, suiting the harsher tone required, with just Nixon's soprano heard over the more melodic section. The film was a huge success, and it raised Nixon's profile, leading to Time Magazine calling her "The Ghostess with the Mostest". A cut of the film was later released with Audrey Hepburn's vocals, with many appreciating further the work done by Nixon.