Q&A: Marni Nixon

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the voice behind some of hollywood's greatest musicals

by shilpa agrawal and hannah o'grady

"i'm not wearing any makeup so i have to tell the truth," the lively 80-year-old marni nixon said as she made her way through her living room, filled with books, photographs of family members and a well-worn piano by the wall. nixon's friendly demeanor belies impressive credentials, including being the mesmerizing voice behind audrey hepburn in my fair lady, natalie wood in west side story and deborah kerr in the king and i. nixon has also acted in films, playing aunt alice in i think i do and sister sophia in the sound of music. her 2006 autobiography, i could have sung all night, reveals her thoughts about these and other moments from her life. nixon lives with her husband, albert block. a voice teacher when she is not performing herself, nixon has no intention of ending her career.

our town: how did you enter into the performance world?

marni nixon: i grew up in california with a very musical family. we all played instruments. i started playing the violin when i was four years old, and we practiced an hour before school everyday.

in my teens i began to sing instead of play. when i was 14, there was a group called the roger wagner chorale. i was a soloist with them, but i would also sing in the ensemble. it was terrific training.

i was also a messenger girl at mgm. i met a lot of people at the studios and started giving tours on the mgm lot. i had a lot of chutzpah. i didn't know that much about the back lot, which was filled with facades, of the studio. but you can fill yourself in on the stories of these facades, and i would make up a lot of stories and get big tips.

you are most famous for your dubbing work. how did you become involved in that?

i did my first dubbing for margaret o'brien when she was acting in the secret garden. i was a little kid actress. somebody saw me-a composer, bronislaw kaper-and he came up to me and he said, "hey nixon, you think you're so smart, well can you sing in hindu?" and i said, "yes!" when i went to the recording studio on the lot, he had a swami there who taught me all the words and told me to sing like a little kid, and then we recorded it.

for the king and i, it was very short notice and they sent me a phonograph of deborah kerr's singing voice and they asked me, "do you think you can do her voice?" and then in the studio the next day they made a recording. within a day or so, i had the job.

kerr and i rehearsed together for about a week per song. i had to know what she was thinking acting-wise, and i sort of had to get into her head. we would stand side-by-side and just go through the scene. she would actually go through the scene and i would watch her and the way her mouth moved, and she would watch me, and i had to imitate her voice and pronounce things like her.

i never thought that the dubbing, or the music theater, would be something that i would be known for. it was like a trick, you know? you could imitate, and you could do things for other people's voices.

but as it turns out, dubbing is what led you to your claim to fame as "the voice of hollywood." what was it like at the time singing behind the scenes for other actresses?

nobody knew that it was dubbed at that point. and they warned me, of course, that if anyone ever found out, that i would never work in town again-that they would see to it. it was really like a mafia threat. i was scared to death that anyone would find out that i did her voice. eventually i figured out that you can't control everybody. like, the orchestra doesn't know what's in my contract. how do they know that they are not supposed to say anything? eventually people began to know. deborah kerr herself let it out in an earl wilson column, that i had done the dubbing. she said that i had just done the high notes, but that's all right.

you later acted in films yourself. your most famous on-screen role is as sister sophia in the sound of music. what was that like?

it's a much more intimate experience. it was wonderful working with the people involved, and getting to know julie andrews. at the time i was working on my fair lady as well, and i went to her and told her that i was having trouble with a scene in that film and she helped me and was just a dear.

in 2006 you came out with an autobiography about your experiences. what inspired you to write it?

people always kept asking me about things, about people, and i would tell them stories and tidbits. eventually people started urging me to write things down, and i realized that nowadays the world is moving so fast and it is important to preserve everything.

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