The voice behind the stars

April 29, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Marni Nixon has the prettiest voice you've never seen. When moviegoers watch Deborah Kerr singing in "The King and I" (1956), Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" (1961) and Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (1964), it's Nixon's voice they're hearing.

If you'd like to see and hear the woman behind the voice, Nixon joins film restoration experts James Katz and Robert Harris for the Maryland Film Festival screening of the restored version of "My Fair Lady" today at 1 p.m. at the Senator Theater.

"It was very exciting and very complicated, with a lot of people telling you what to do," Nixon recalls of her "My Fair Lady" dubbing duties. "And Audrey didn't want to tell me how to do the Cockney accent."

There were a number of creative complications involved in director George Cukor's film adaptation of the Broadway musical. Among them were the rejection for the movie of Julie Andrews, who played the role of Cockney-accented Eliza Doolittle on stage, because studio bosses felt she was a box office risk; and the disappointment of movie star Hepburn, who was ultimately cast as Eliza, when her recording studio sessions were rejected and Nixon was brought in to dub her singing.

Nixon, who estimates she has dubbed voices in about 50 movies, became famous for vocally becoming other people.

"You have to size up what you think they should sound like by the way they look physically. You have to do a lot of imagining, and then technically produce that sound," says Nixon from her New York City home. "You also have to be astute when you accept the job that it's a voice you can do. I'd never dub Louis Armstrong."

Nixon, who declines to give her age, has had musical theater roles since she was a teen. After graduating from high school in 1947, the native Californian became a messenger girl at MGM and took whatever advertising jingles and singing jobs that came her way.

"I needed to make a living, so the dubbing jobs were just a part of that. I just looked on it as an interesting acting job, a kind of challenge to do it as well as you could. I was known for my other work, so I didn't seem to have any ego problem [with being heard and not seen]. Dubbing was just a sideline."

Nixon's other work has varied from an acting role as a nun in "The Sound of Music" (1965), to musical theater roles (including the recently closed Broadway musical version of James Joyce's story "The Dead"), to appearances with symphony orchestras and opera companies and a one-woman show incorporating singing and video clips, to recording albums, to acting in the ABC-TV children's series "Boomerang," for which she won four Emmy Awards.

She also gives numerous master classes, which brought her to Loyola College in 1998 to work with Baltimore-area vocal students. Because her own career has been marked by the ease with which she performs both classical and popular music, Nixon is pleased to encounter so many musically versatile students in these master classes.

Whatever musical style is called for in a movie, Broadway musical, opera house or advertising jingle, she says singing itself "is all about connecting to a person's soul."

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