For much of her career, Marni Nixon has been famous for being heard but not seen. As the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in "The King and I," Natalie Wood in "West Side Story," and Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady," Nixon has played an important part in movie musical history.
But in October of 1999, four months before her 70th birthday, Nixon became a visible presence to New York audiences when she created the role of Aunt Kate Morkan in Playwrights Horizons' production of James Joyce's The Dead, a role she subsequently played on Broadway. She has since been seen on Broadway in revivals of Follies and Nine. And she is currently appearing in the non-singing role of Mrs. Higgins in the much-acclaimed national tour of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, starring Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O'Hare. The Cameron Mackintosh/National Theatre production, which ends its ten-month tour in June.
While it appears that Nixon's career took off in a new direction after more than 40 years in the business, she is, in fact, no stranger to the stage. "I was doing so many other things before Broadway," says Nixon, who portrayed Higgins' mother last year in the New York Philharmonic's staged concert of My Fair Lady. "I did a lot of operatic work, and I did a lot of theatre on the West Coast. But the national press doesn't follow what's doing in San Bernardino."
Nixon actually made her Broadway debut in 1954, singing in the chorus of the short-lived The Girl in Pink Tights. In May of 1964, less than two years after the original production of My Fair Lady had closed, Nixon starred in a revival at New York's City Center. The New York Times said she "made Eliza Doolittle her own." The following year, Nixon was briefly seen and heard on screen as one of the nuns in "The Sound of Music." But she has left an indelible mark for her ability to make vocally challenged actresses "sing" beautifully.
"There are various ways of dubbing," she says. "The best way is to have lots of continual contact with the actress and rehearse with her a lot. You have to be able to mimic her speech pattern, and sound like she would sound if she sang. When you record the sound track, she's right there with you. She can try out what you've done and say, 'No, it doesn’t feel right.' And you keep redoing it until it does. Then she has to mouth the track herself. But it didn't always work out that way.
"Natalie Wood didn’t think she had to be dubbed at all," Nixon continues. "I was there constantly, but she thought I was just going to fill in a few high notes. So she recorded all the songs, and filmed them to her own track. They didn’t want her to know I was going to dub her songs until after she had filmed everything. So I went in, and watched her lips, and they weren't exactly with the music. I had to hedge a little, although you'd never notice it. When her lips were to the side, or her head was cocked a little bit, I was able to be with the music, even though I really wasn’t with her lips. It was a very difficult process."
It’s been decades since Nixon has used her vocal gifts to give voice to another actress. And these days, audiences around the country are growing accustomed to her face.