Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


NIXON, Marni

(b Margaret Nixon McEathron, 22 February 1930, Altadena CA; d 24 July 2016, NYC) Actor and singer, famous for dubbing for non-singing actors in musical films, but practicing a wide range of skills. She began on violin at age four, studied voice at USC; as a youngster she was a charter member of the Roger Wagner Chorale, and sang for the world-famous expatriate composers Schönberg and Stravinsky. Pursuing a career as an actor and a singer, she had a lovely warm soprano voice with uncanny accuracy, and discovered that she had a talent for dubbing, which also requires exquisite timing, as well as the ability to gain the confidence of the actor being dubbed. She dubbed Jeanne Crain in Cheaper By The Dozen, Janet Leigh in Pepe, and Ida Lupino in Jennifer; the voices of an angel heard by Ingrid Bergman in Joan Of Arc '48, Margaret O’Brien in The Secret Garden '49 and Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes '53 (the producers wanted her to dub all of Monroe’s singing, but she resisted, pointing out that Monroe’s natural singing voice was perfect for the character she was playing). She also appeared in the soundtrack of Dementia '55 (aka Daughter Of Horror); studio work over the years included backup, duets, work sometimes dubbed on reissues with Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Sam Cooke and many others. One of her toughest jobs was dubbing 'I'm Comin' Virginia' for Ethel Waters on TV, when that great singer was too old to do it herself.

When the singer who was supposed to dub Deborah Kerr in the film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King And I was killed in a car crash in Europe in 1955, Ken Darby, working for music director Alfred Newman, called Nixon. When the movie and the hit soundtrack album came out in 1956, Nixon began to become famous, eventually described by Time magazine as 'the ghostess with the mostess'. Nixon and Kerr were the same size and even had the same hair color; they made a point of matching their voices, so that in the soliloquy 'Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?' they traded lines, while Kerr did the verse to 'Getting To Know You', and nobody could tell the difference. (Kerr was nominated for an Oscar; Nixon was paid $420 and the studio threatened her, saying that if she let out that she had done the dubbing, they would see to it that she never worked in Hollywood again, but the secret could not be kept.) She also dubbed Kerr playing a nightclub singer in An Affair To Remember '57. Dubbing Leonard Bernstein’s music for Natalie Wood in West Side Story '61 (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), Nixon also dubbed a song for Rita Moreno, which led to a duet with herself in that scene. She asked Bernstein for a royalty and he generously gave her one-quarter of one percent of his own royalties, which is the kind of percentage that often does not get paid. She also dubbed for Wood playing Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy '62. Nixon’s triumphant hat-trick of starring roles was completed when she dubbed for Audrey Hepburn in Lerner & Leowe’s My Fair Lady '64, a part that should have gone to Julie Andrews, who had sung it on stage (later, when Andrews starred in her own huge hit film of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound Of Music, Nixon sang and played one of the nuns).

[Incidentally, the dubbing for Rosalind Russell as the show-biz mama in Gypsy was done by Lisa Kirk (1925-90), who was also sometimes billed as Elsie Kirk; in her career Kirk was credited with introducing songs by Cole Porter. Another well-known dubbing singer was Ilene Woods (b Jacquelyn Ruth Woods, 5 May 1929, Portsmouth NH; d 1 July 2010, Los Angeles. As a busy 18-year-old singing on the radio, she did a demo for Walt Disney as a favor to songwriters Jerry Livingston and Mack David, and ended up beating out 300 other girls for the voice of Disney's Cinderella. She was married to drummer Ed Shaughnessy.]

Nixon’s first husband was film composer Ernest Gold, who scored over 50 films including Jennifer '53, and won an Oscar for the music for Exodus '60; their children include singers/songwriters Andrew Gold and Melanie Gold. But the big trio of dubbed musical films represent only the most famous aspect of Nixon’s much-loved talent and her excellent voice: in 1957 she sang Pierre Boulez's Pli Selon Pli, a sort of Mt. Rushmore of abstract contemporary music, with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the broadcast recording later issued in a commemorative box put out by the orchestra (one commentator said that she knew what she was doing but that Bernstein didn't understand the music). Also for the classical audience, with conductor Robert Craft she recorded Bach, Monteverdi, Schönberg’s cabaret songs (the Brettl-Lieder), and the songs of Anton Webern. On various albums she recorded the songs of Charles Ives, Ernest Gold ('Songs Of Love And Parting'), Peter Maxwell Davies ('Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot'), Castelnuovo-Tedesco ('Coplas', Op. 7), Aaron Copland’s 'Eight Poems of Emily Dickenson', and Alan Hovhaness’s 'Avak The Healer'.

Over the years she toured as Anna in The King And I (20th-Century Fox lent her Deborah Kerr's costumes and Alfred Newman's orchestrations), later in Kander & Ebb's Cabaret; she also toured with Liberace and Victor Borge, and praised Borge's all-round musicianship as well as his civilized company. Living in Seattle during the 1970s, she sang for the Seattle Opera and hosted a kiddie TV show, Boomerang, which won several Emmys. She sang in the Mayfair Studio recording of South Pacific, made albums Sings Gershwin '85 and Sings Classic Kern '88 for Reference Recordings, and appeared in the soundtrack of Disney's animated Mulan '98, as well as a CD of Opal: The Complete Score 2000. Her one-woman show The Voice Of Hollywood '99 included clips from the films. Another show was John Raitt, Marni Nixon and Friends, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Santa Monica College. She appeared in the films Sleepless In Seattle '93 and I Think I Do '97; her television appearances included Jack And The Beanstalk ’67, an episode of The Mothers-In-Law '69, and documentaries The Making of My Fair Lady '94 and Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies '96. She also made the TV movie Taking My Turn '84, a straight film of an off-Broadway musical with Margaret Whiting, Sheila Smith III and Cissy Houston on the subject of the vissicitudes of growing older; but Nixon showed no signs of slowing down: she toured in James Joyce’s The Dead on the West Coast (the show had played on Broadway in 2000, music by Shawn Davey, lyrics by Davey and Richard Nelson), acted in a segment of Law And Order: Special Victims Unit in 2001, and appeared on National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor in 2002, duetting with him on 'Wouldn’t It Be Loverly' and - the consummate pro - flying with a skit he apparently handed her on the air.

Marni Nixon is the pop singer that classical singers should learn from, and the 'legit' singer that pop singers should learn from. Her recordings of the songs of Charles Ives, made in mid-1967 with pianist John McCabe and issued on Nonesuch, were reissued on Naxos in 2008, and Rob Barnett at MusicWeb-International wrote, 'What an extraordinary artist we hear in Marni Nixon. There really should be [a collection] of her recordings.' That would have to be a big box of CDs. A series of children's recordings for Bowmar was called Rhythms To Reading, book-record sets for various holidays and times of the year, written by Lucille Wood; music composed, arranged and conducted by Edward B. Jurey, Supervisor of Music in the Los Angeles City Schools; with narrator-vocalists Marni Nixon and William Schallert. (The 12" vinyl LPs had no date or copyright info anywhere on the discs or packaging.) There doesn't seem to have been any area of American culture that Marnie Nixon didn't touch in her astonishing career.