The Many Voices of Marni Nixon


Marni Nixon passed yesterday.  She had a long, accomplished career as a classically trained singer on the concert and theater stage, but she is most famous for her leading contributions to some of the most famous musicals of Hollywood’s golden age.

Except she was heard, not seen.

She is the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”, of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”, of Nathalie Wood in “West Side Story”.

Initially the fact that the stars in these movies had been dubbed, and all dubbed by the same woman, was kept secret by the studios.  But eventually word got out and spread, and Marni Nixon became famous for the being the singing voice of the leading ladies of some of the greatest musicals of our time.

As her New York Times obit details: “Starting as a teenager in the late 1940s and continuing for the next two decades, Ms. Nixon lent her crystalline soprano to some 50 films, sometimes contributing just a line or two of song — sometimes just a single, seamless note — that the actress could not manage on her own.”

She had an uncanny ability to match her voice to the actor, like a vocal chameleon.  She said herself in a 1964 interview with The New York Journal-American: “It’s fascinating, getting inside the actresses you’re singing for. It’s like cutting off the top of their heads and seeing what’s underneath. You have to know how they feel, as well as how they talk, in order to sing as they would sing — if they could sing.”

I met her a few times.  She was an acquaintance of my mother, also a classically trained singer.  When Ms. Nixon performed in the musical “James Joyce’s The Dead” on Broadway in 2000, we joined her backstage (met Christopher Walken) and then went out to lunch together, where she and my mom shared stories from a combined century of singing careers.

So to honor Marni Nixon, and to save you the YouTube searches, here assembled are the most famous occasions where she sang for the stars, and one where she got to finally be seen in a classic movie musical too, perhaps the most famous one of them all.  It really is amazing to recognize that all those amazing musical scores were sung by the same woman, sounding like the star we were watching on screen, “if she could sing” as well as all that.

Let’s start with Marni Nixon getting to sing for you, Deborah Kerr, in “The King and I”:

Follow that up with Marni Nixon feeling and sounding pretty for Nathalie Wood in “West Side Story”:

Marni Nixon could have sung sung sung all night for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”:

Now Marilyn Monroe does most of her own singing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.  But Ms. Nixon did get spliced into the audio a bit, helping out with the high notes and trills.

In Mulan, Marni Nixon is the singing voice of Grandma Fa:

Finally, Marni Nixon got to be seen and heard on screen in perhaps the biggest, surely the highest grossing Hollywood musical, The Sound of Music, as Sister Sophia.  She’s the one who sings: “She waltzes on her way to mass and whistles on the stair.”

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in Cinema Scope, Melodies Linger On, Notes in the News and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Many Voices of Marni Nixon

  1. howlevmuso says:

    I once had the pleasure of working with Marni as a pianist-for-hire, helping her to dig through the library of Jerome Kern’s biographer in search of little-known gems to record. She was a complete delight and I was so happy for the opportunity to accompany her, if only privately, and hear her sing up close and personal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. says:

    Thanks, Danny. What a beautiful voice she had! Love, Mim

    Liked by 1 person

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