Marni Nixon: Hollywood's Invisible Voice You might not know Marni Nixon's name, but you have most probably heard her. She dubbed the voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady — three of Hollywood's biggest movie musicals. Her new memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night, is being published this week.
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Marni Nixon: Hollywood's Invisible Voice

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Marni Nixon: Hollywood's Invisible Voice

Marni Nixon: Hollywood's Invisible Voice

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

She's been a clue on Jeopardy and in the New York Times crossword puzzle. She's been a contestant on To Tell the Truth and a question in Trivial Pursuit. Reporter Jeff Lunden says you might not know Marni Nixon's name, but you've probably heard her.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Quick. What does this voice...

(Soundbite of The King and I)

Ms. MARNI NIXON (Singer): (Singing) Shall we dance...

LUNDEN: ...have in common with this voice?

(Soundbite of West Side Story)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) Tonight, tonight...

LUNDEN: And this voice?

(Soundbite of My Fair Lady)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) I could have danced all night. I could have danced all...

LUNDEN: They're all the same voice. Singer Marni Nixon dubbed the voices for Debra Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady - three of Hollywood's biggest movie musicals. She's written a memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night, that's being published this week.

Ms. NIXON: The book I wrote because everybody was always asking me questions about the dubbing and what it was like, and I didn't know you did that.

LUNDEN: Marni Nixon at 76 has had a career that defies categorization. She's performed on Broadway and in opera houses, hosted an Emmy Award-winning children's television show, and she's a well regarded singing teacher in New York City. Born in Southern California, Nixon became a sought-after singer by the time she was a teenager for her perfect pitch and ability to read any piece of music handed to her, no matter how difficult. She even premiered works by composers like Igor Stravinsky.

Ms. NIXON: He had a very funny sense of humor and at lunches he would talk about wines and things that we had no idea about - even drinking. And just things that interested him.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. NIXON: Drink dear, drink dear, quick drink, drink or world had find you had never baby doll...

LUNDEN: Because she was such an excellent musician, Marni Nixon worked constantly, dubbing voices for Hollywood studios. In 1954 she got a call to ghost Deborah Kerr's voice in The King and I.

Ms. NIXON: Somebody actually died who had been hired to do her voice and they were suddenly stuck, and the musical director, Ken Darby, called me and said, I think you can do this. We're going to send you a recording on her voice. You assess it overnight, come in tomorrow and sing it for us, which I did. And then they sent that to Richard Rogers and he approved of it. And so then in about a week I was hired.

(Soundbite of The King and I)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me.

LUNDEN: Deborah Kerr understood she needed to be dubbed, and Nixon says their relationship was very collegial.

Ms. NIXON: Whenever there was a song to be sung in a scene, I would get up and stand next to her and watch her while she sang and she would watch me while I sang. After we recorded that song, she would have to go to the filming of it and mouth to that performance. So she had to be very aware of what she was going to do and how she was going to sing the song ahead of time.

LUNDEN: Stephen Cole, who co-authored Nixon's memoirs, says she never got official credit for her work on The King and I. In fact, the studio, 20th Century Fox, was so protective of Deborah Kerr that they threatened Marni Nixon.

Mr. STEPHEN COLE (Author): They told Marni if this ever gets out and you tell anyone you'll never work in this town again. And it scared her. But she did sign the contract saying that she would never tell anybody. It came out in the press because Deborah Kerr said to her later on, well, I never signed that contract.

(Soundbite of West Side Story)

LUNDEN: While Deborah Kerr was willing to credit Nixon things were not so friendly with Natalie Wood on West Side Story. Wood was aware that Nixon was recording tracks, but thought only certain high notes would be substituted, not her entire vocal, says Stephen Cole.

Mr. COLE: She was lied to from day one, Natalie Wood. And in fact they did pre-recordings in the same studio with the same orchestra where Natalie would do a song and then Marni would do the same song. Marni thought it was barbaric because Natalie was not good, and everyone would tell her she was wonderful, she was fabulous, knowing that they would not be using her tracks.

(Soundbite of song I Feel Pretty)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) I feel pretty oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and gay. And I pity any girl who isn't me today.

LUNDEN: There's even a moment in West Side Story where Marni Nixon sings with herself. Rita Moreno, who was playing Anita was being dubbed by singer Betty Wand.

Ms. NIXON: And they both had colds when we were recording the rumble. So Sal Chaplain, who was the musical director, said, well, Marni can you do Rita's voice? And so I said, sure. So I sort of colored my voice a little and so then I ended up doing a duet with myself - just a few measures there.

(Singing) Anita's going to get her kicks tonight.

(Speaking) And then I go...

(Singing) Tonight, tonight...

(Soundbite of West Side Story)

Ms. NIXON (Singing): ...this night. Tonight.

LUNDEN: Nixon says she had a better working relationship with Audrey Hepburn on My Fair Lady, even though Hepburn, like Natalie Wood, expected most of her own vocals to be used.

Ms. NIXON: She kept going to her voice lessons and trying to improve certain parts and re-record certain things, but she could also tell that she wasn't making it.

(Soundbite of My Fair Lady)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) All I want is a room somewhere far away from the cold night air, with one enormous chair. Oh wouldn't it be lovely.

LUNDEN: It was after she worked on My Fair Lady that Marni Nixon finally got some public recognition for being a ghost.

Ms. NIXON: And suddenly Time magazine called and they said they wanted to do an interview with me and they had found out about the dubbing. So they came and sent a photographer and they dubbed me the ghostess with the mostest, bad rhyme, but that sort of stuck, you know.

LUNDEN: In the more than 40 years since My Fair Lady, Nixon's only appeared in one movie, The Sound of Music, as Sister Sophia, one of the nuns who sing How Do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?

(Soundbite of The Sound of Music)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) When I'm with her I'm confused, out of focus and bemused.

LUNDEN: Co-author Stephen Cole says Marni Nixon was still a ghost as far as the public was concerned.

Mr. COLE: When she did finally appear on the screen in The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, she went to the premier and she got out of her car with her red hair and they all screamed. And then they looked at her and said, oh, it's nobody.

LUNDEN: Marni Nixon hopes her new book will set the record straight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

HANSEN: Marni Nixon tells more of her story on npr.org, where you can also hear her sing I Feel Pretty and Wouldn't it be Loverly.

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