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Marni Nixon: The Voice of Beloved Movie Musicals Reflects on 'The Sound of Music'

04/01/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015
GABRIEL BOUYS via Getty Images

I was recently pitched a super-charged remastered album release for the 50th anniversary of the film, "The Sound of Music." Chock full of previously unreleased content on a two disc LP set (yes, LP!) produced by Analog Spark, it got me thinking about why there's a demand for constantly "perfected" material that most likely viewed as "perfect" in the first place.

Someone immediately came to mind who could help me explore this somewhat obsessive motivation, a woman who knows the importance of a musical movie soundtrack better than anyone else: Marni Nixon.

"Sister Sophia," singing in the sixsome who, even collectively, can't seem to solve a problem like Maria, she's better known to those savvy of a good soundtrack as Eliza Doolittle ("My Fair Lady"), Maria ("West Side Story"), and Anna Leonowens ("The King and I").

So, I gave Nixon (85) a call to chat and reflect, now more than 50 years later, on the magic that created some of the most cherished movies of all time.

Hold it there. I know, if you're old enough (or enough of a fan) to be even casually informed of details of these films, you probably think I'm grossly misguided. Audrey Hepburn played Eliza Doolittle. Natalie Wood played Maria. Deborah Kerr was Anna. You are correct. They played the part, but, they didn't sing it.

It was hush hush back then, but it isn't a secret these days that Nixon would lend these fantastic actresses (notice my choice of nouns), their singing voices, even giving Marilyn Monroe a little boost on the high notes of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

So, I asked Nixon what some of her favorite memories are, first of getting to perform on film herself in the now a classic song, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" (She sings, "she waltzes on her way to mass, and whistles on the stairs," which shall now be stuck in your head for the duration of this story).

"I listen to the ["Sound of Music"] CD... once in a while," Nixon said. "All the scenes around your life sort of come back to you as you're listening," she added. "All the specifics of like where your kids were and that you had to pick them up from school," because what we now see as movie magic, to these performers also meant going to work. "I had to carry this 2" x 4" to get it into the studio," Nixon adds with a laugh, "because I was remodeling my kitchen... and they wouldn't let me in the back lot with this thing hanging out of my car, " she said. "Stupid things like that."

Confused about the 2" x 4" somewhere in the Swiss Alps? See, after all her work, dubbing for some of Hollywood's top talent and being a part of "The Sound of Music" cast, Nixon didn't even get a trip to Europe out of it.

"I never got to go," Nixon said, "which was very disappointing to me. Some of the other nuns did, but I wasn't important enough." "We filmed it all on the 20th Century lot, the whole scene," Nixon explained about the song and famous abbey scene. "It was an absolute duplicate of the outside of the cathedral. They made a Plaster of Paris of the wall, all the writings on the wall, the doors--the entrance doors--and everything," she explained.

As much as fans see these works as perfection on film, they were all in a day's work for the performers who created them. I asked Nixon too if at the time, rushing between life and the studio and other jobs (she was also performing in La Boehme during the filming of "The Sound of Music" and would often make it to the theater while the performance was underway, not long before having to go onstage), if she knew these films would be among some of the most beloved of all time. "Isn't that amazing?" Nixon commented. "No, I didn't. You just do the job. You just [thought that] that it was wonderful to be a part of it." However, on the flip side she added that with the success of movie musicals, even if one did better than the next, she believed the popularity of the form would continue indefinitely.

But, let's get back to magic that is, versus what may be no longer. After all, these films were manufactured dreams but they were tailored-made to fit the imaginations of their audiences. Among these classics, the ones usually held in the highest regard are similar in their painstaking obsession over the details. The music, book, and lyrics may have been beautiful on Broadway, but film is a different beast. Creating these worlds had to be real down to each and every sight and sound--even if those sounds were manufactured by a performer other than the star mouthing them on screen.

In this, some of the individual players may have been more compliant than others, however, once the film was in the can, it represented a larger vision and expectation that someone like Anna, for instance, will be able to sing a happy tune, just as well as she can of course "whistle" one.

Nixon remembers, for instance, that Natalie Wood didn't want to be dubbed, "She knew that she needed somebody to do a few high notes for her, but she thought that she was going to do the whole soundtrack." It seems that she couldn't be convinced otherwise and as a result, the film's producers might have to "improvise," since she wasn't experienced enough as a singer to handle such a demanding score. They had Wood record her tracks, then mouth along to them during the filming, as is typically the case with movie musicals. However, Nixon was "in the wings," as they say, "standing by all the time to watch her to get used to the way she sounded."

The go-to gal for vocal dubbing, Nixon had a unique challenge in the case of "West Side Story" though, as Wood clearly didn't know she would be dubbed, therefore Nixon wasn't able to attend Wood's coaching sessions, "the way you can get used to the way somebody sings, if you're going to be dubbing," Nixon said. Like something out of a spy film more than a musical, Nixon explained the solution: "They wouldn't let me in because her ego just wouldn't let that [happen]... but they would sneak me recordings."

Needless to say, once they broke the news to Wood, it didn't go over so well. According to Nixon, Wood briefly walked out on the film but luckily for the filmmakers, and inevitably the fans, she returned. "She was very mad [but] finally she came back," Nixon said. "Then I had to come in to... dub in my voice to the already existing soundtrack, which is sort of the backwards way [to do it]."

During filming of "My Fair Lady," Audrey Hepburn apparently felt similar to Wood, not wanting to be dubbed--although she did allow Nixon into her vocal lessons so that Nixon could hear and prepare, and be able to mimic Hepburn's speech pattern and specific Cockney dialect she had affected as Doolittle. "She was very smart and very honest," Nixon said, "and she knew that certain parts just wouldn't work out. She kept going back to the sound stage and trying to re-record things that she had recorded that she didn't like. Then finally, I had to go in a lot of the times and re-dub."

"For instance," Nixon adds, "'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' was filmed totally with her soundtrack and I had to go back and lay my voice into it that way," versus Hepburn working directly with Nixon's recording.

In "The King and I," however, Deborah Kerr was more willing to admit her weaknesses upfront, and in many ways, used it to her advantage to ensure her own complete and cohesive performance. She would work with Nixon daily, going to the sound stage and rehearsing, "who is going to sing what measure or sometimes the measures when she just spoke was just her. Then I had to carry that on in her speaking tone," before she would continue singing. "From measure to measure," Nixon explains, "it was a sound consistent spot." They worked so well together, it's no wonder Nixon provided similar support a year later for another classic, "An Affair to Remember," in which Kerr portrayed nightclub singer, Terry McKay.

Putting these mega-films and her contributions in comparison, Nixon notes that it's more than just the voice, but her in many ways becoming one with actress who she's assisting that helps advance the work. "Notice that especially in 'The King and I' no one can really tell that it was dubbed at all," Nixon said. "I think it was because I got not only the fabric of the way she sounded when she sang. I had to change my voice a little. But, I had knowledge of her acting process."

Although much of this is now part of movie history, and known to many fans, I suspect there's others staring at their screens with a look of shock--maybe even feeling a bit let down. I've not ruined your childhoods, though, I promise you. Instead, allow me to offer up a new perspective.

First, let's root ourselves in reality. We all know that Julie Andrews isn't really Maria Von Trapp. She embodied her marvelously, yes, but did the same with Mary Poppins, Victor/Victoria, and other characters, too. Natalie Wood did not invent the other Maria, either. No, nor did she create Juliet (as in "Romeo &") for which the character is based. Instead, if we look past the plots themselves, we realize what we love is not just the films themselves, but the many curated parts that were so expertly and artistically weaved together to create moments of sheer perfection.

It's not like Marni Nixon skulked around in the shadows either, besides vocal dubbing and appearing in several films herself, she's played starring roles in many of these works on stage in New York and around the world, including as Maria in "The Sound of Music," and Eliza in "My Fair Lady." She's also performed on Broadway, is a highly-accomplished opera singer, author, and Grammy-nominated recording artist, among many other accolades.

Instead, if you look past what we assume to be perfect -- or at least what we believe the definition to be -- you may no longer see these film in the exact same way, but not in a lesser regard, either. They are, at the end of the day, like any other film, fabricated realities but ones carefully orchestrated by the best in their fields, including those who appeared on screen and others who supported behind the scenes.

So, it'll be exciting to hear what new sounds will come out with continually "improved" recordings, both audio and visual, as we rediscover favorite works that are often even decades older than we are, and most definitely older than the technology with which we now enjoy it and utilize to "perfect" them even further.

Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of www.centerontheaisle.com.