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A CurtainUp Berkshire Feature
Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood

Marni Nixon
Marni Nixon, autographing her memoir after playing her one-woman show to a full house at Barrington stage. (Photo: Elyse Sommer)

The stars whose voices Marni Nixon so famously dubbed —Deborah Kerr (The King and I), Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) , Natalie Wood (West Side Story) — are now ghosts, while Marni Nixon, "the ghostess with the mostest," has enjoyed a front and center musical theater career (Cabaret, James Joyce's The Dead, Follies), as well as starring in her entertaining biographical show, Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood.

Just as I predicted after I saw Nixon's first presentation of her entertaining stage memoir during the summer of 1999, it's had a life beyond Barrington Stage. And Nixon, who like Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook, is living proof that musical talent and charm need not fall victim to Father Time, has strengthened her mix of reminiscences, songs and film clips to make this a more sophisticated entertainment. But that's not to say that it's become too slick or that Nixon doesn't retain her warm, intimate connection with the audience or her wonderful sense of humor.

Now in her upper 70s, Nixon's speaking voice tends to get a bit tired but no matter. What she has to say is interesting and often funny. Best of all, her beautiful soprano which has also graced opera and concert stages is still rich and a joy to hear, and there's no lack of opportunity to appreciate it. "Tonight," "Shall We Dance", "Getting to Know You", "Hello Young Lovers", "I Feel Pretty", "Wouldn't It Be Lovely" and "I Could Have Danced All Night". . .these are some of the more famous of the wenty-two songs threaded throughout the two-hour, two-act show. The acoustics in Barrington Stage's new theater and its spacious stage add to the pleasure — with plenty of room for a screen on which to show the film exceprts, for her excellent accompanyist Bob Goldstone's piano and for Nixon to move around and at one point even walk off stage and into the aisle.

Julianne Boyd couldn't have timed Nixon's return to Barrington Stage better as it's one-night only special performance took place in the same theater where Boyd's terrific revival of West Side Story is in its last week and where the movie version in which Nixon dubbed Natalie Wood premiered when the Union Street venue was still a movie house. To add to the timeliness, Nixon's book I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story is now available in paperback so that this is a combination book and stage tour.

The bad news about the story I'm wiring is that it comes too late for you to see Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood, unless it comes to a venue in a town or city where you live during fall, winter and spring. You can, however, get a copy of her book by following this link: I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story I'm including the review of the 1999 premiere production since it's essentially the same, except for its being staged in a more comfortable and apt environment as well as enhanced and updated.

The Ghostess With the Mostest: Marni Nixon
by Elyse Sommer

A young woman sitting next to me at the first of two Barrington Stage sponsored summer cabaret showings of Marni Nixon, The Voice of Hollywood had come to the top of the Crown Plaza in Pittsfield, MA simply to hear her sing "all those great songs" listed in the ads for the show. She had no idea that Nixon was famous for being invisible — the voice dubbed in for the high visibility stars in stage-to-screen adaptations of West Side Story and My Fair Lady. Her mother, who did know the reason for Nixon's famous "Ghostess with the Mostest" nickname, remarked "you'd think they would have looked first and foremost for singing talent before casting those movies. . ." She shouldn't have been surprised. Hollywood during its movie musical heyday, as now, was always ruled by box office consideration. As people in the real estate business follow the mantra of location, location, location— so Hollywood's mantra is star power, star power, star power!

At any rate, Marni Nixon's story makes for an interesting footnote to Hollywood. Her bio-concert requires only a piano accompanist and a screen for the film clips used to illustrate her anecdotes about her ghostly adventures. Add to the easy to mount production values the interest in plays about movie history like Barrington Stage's Mack and Mabel which is sure to turn up at other regional theaters) and this has all the earmarks of a small show that could easily travel from its two-day trial run in Pittsfield to other cabarets or small theaters.

Ms. Nixon's musical selections represent her entire career (including her most recent appearance as Freulein Schneider in Cabaret) and a personal life which includes several marriages to musicians. (Husband #1 composed the theme song to the movie Exodus which he sold for a flat fee of $75 and which she sings with much feeling). But the meat and potatoes of the evening are her experiences as a song dubber. Her patter includes some fascinating tidbits that even those who are familiar with her behind the scenes role are unlikely to have heard before. Here are a few samples:

On her first dubbing roles
While working mostly as an extra she did a brief dub-in for the child actress Margaret O'Brien. The film: The Secret Garden. She also dubbed in the angel voices Ingrid Bergman heard in Joan of Arc.

On dubbing for Deborah Kerr
While her most famous "collaboration"" with Kerr was The King and I, she also sang a song for her in An Affair to Remember which co-starred Kerr and Cary Grant. Nixon amusingly freezes Kerr's screen image while singing the dubbed song.

On West Side Story
While Natalie Wood's songs were Nixon's chief assignments, she also did one number for Rita Moreno and does a roll take on a scene where she is effectively doing a duet with herself. That dubbing assignment also led to her asking to be paid some royalties. While her request was to no avail, Leonard Bernstein ceded one quarter of one per cent of his royalties to her (anyone who knows anything about music royalties will understand the value of Bernstein's generosity).

On her minor role in The Sound of Music opposite Julie Andrews who smarted from being by-passed for the movie version of My Fair Lady
Nixon was happy to be cast as one of the nuns but there was some nervous anticipation about meeting Andrews to whom she served as a reminder of a major disappointment. After all, it was because of Nixon's skills as a singing ghost that the studio powers were able to hire the bigger but non-singing star, Audrey Hepburn. As it turned out, Andrews walked over to her, shook her hand and said "I like your work." She became a good enough friend to help Nixon overcome her anxieties when she was cast to play Eliza in a City Center My Fair Lady revival.

— Elyse Sommer, 1999.
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Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.


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©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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