In movie musicals today it is not unusual for actors to sing their own parts, even when they are not particularly gifted at singing (examples are 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 2012's Les Misérables). That having been said, there was a time when Hollywood took a slightly different approach. In the Fifties and Sixties it was not unusual for an actor's voice to be be dubbed even when he or she could sing. The singers responsible for the dubbing are known as playback singers, and in many classic Hollywood musicals it is their voices one hears rather than that of the actors.
Perhaps the most famous playback singer of all time was Marni Nixon. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). While Marni Nixon had her own singing career and even appeared on Broadway, she has remained best known for her work as a playback singer. Sadly, Marni Nixon died July 24 2016 at the age of 86. The cause was breast cancer.
Marni Nixon was born Margaret Nixon in Altadena, California on February 22 1930. She took to music while very young, studying the violin when she was only four years old. She became a child actress who played bit parts in films. She had a credited role in the film The Bashful Bachelor (1942), which was released when she was only twelve years old. She was eleven years old when she won a singing contest at the Los Angeles County Fair. She studied under Vera Schwarz, an Austrian soprano who had appeared in opera houses throughout Europe. When Miss Nixon was 17 she appeared as a solo vocalist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She later studied at the Berkshire Music Centre in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
As a teenager Marni Nixon worked as a messenger at MGM. It was not long before the studio decided to use her to dub the singing voices of actors. Her first job as a playback singer was dubbing the singing voice of Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden (1949). This was followed by singing in two classic Disney films, Cinderella (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951). The very late Forties through the Fifties would see Marni Nixon very much in demand as a playback singer in films. In 1950 she provided Jeanne Crain's singing voice in Cheaper by the Dozen. The year 1953 saw Miss Nixon provide Ida Lupino's singing voice in Jennifer and also saw her sing a few of Marilyn Monroe's lines in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in both The King and I (1956) and An Affair to Remember (1957). She was Janet Leigh's singing voice in Pepe (1960), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). She provided the voices of the geese in Mary Poppins (1964). She was the voice of Princess Serena in Gene Kelly and Hanna-Barbera's television special Jack and the Beanstalk in 1967. She later provided the signing voice of Grandmother Fa in Mulan (1998).
While Marni Nixon's spent much of her time dubbing the singing voices of actors, she was seen on screen a few times. She played Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music (1965) and guest starred as herself on the Sixties sitcom The Mothers-In-Law. In the Eighties she hosted the children's show Boomerang. She guest starred on a 2001 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Although best known for dubbing the singing voices of actors, Marni Nixon had her own career as a performer. She appeared on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), James Joyce's The Dead (2000), Follies (2001), and Nine (2003). She played Eliza Doolittle in a revival of My Fair Lady at City Centre in New York City in 1964. She also performed with the New York Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and Town Hall in New York City. Over the years she performed many concerts and made several recordings.
In some ways it is sad that Marni Nixon will always be best known for providing the singing voices of other performers in films, as she was gifted with an incredible soprano voice. What is more, it was a highly adaptable voice. Miss Nixon could sound like such diverse women as Deborah Kerr, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, so much so that to this day many audiences are none the wiser that it is not those women singing. Given her sheer virtuosity and versatility, Marni Nixon really deserves to be better known for her own work than she currently is. Few singers were ever as talented as she was.