Singer Marni Nixon has died at the age of 86. She didn’t get the marquee credit, but the singing in some of the most famous musicals of the twentieth century was actually her work.
As NPR relates, Nixon lent her voice to Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens in The King and I; Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story; and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. (She presumably wouldn’t have gotten that last gig if they’d cast the actress who originated the role on the London stage—Julie Andrews.)
Her work was pretty much an open secret, according to her New York Times obituary, but she said it was an uphill battle to get much money or credit for it:
Deborah Kerr was nominated for an Academy Award in 1956 for her role as Anna in “The King and I”; the film’s soundtrack album sold hundreds of thousands of copies. For singing Anna’s part on that album, Ms. Nixon recalled, she received a total of $420.
“You always had to sign a contract that nothing would be revealed,” Ms. Nixon told the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2007. “Twentieth Century Fox, when I did ‘The King and I,’ threatened me.” She continued, “They said, if anybody ever knows that you did any part of the dubbing for Deborah Kerr, we’ll see to it that you don’t work in town again.”
After My Fair Lady, according to NPR, Nixon did get some wider recognition via Time magazine, who found out about the voiceover work. “So they came and sent a photographer, and they dubbed me ‘The Ghostess with the Mostest.’ Bad rhyme, but that sort of stuck, you know?”
And her career went far beyond her work dubbing less musically talented actresses. The Times says:
Before her Hollywood days and long afterward, Ms. Nixon was an acclaimed concert singer, a specialist in contemporary music who appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic; a recitalist at Carnegie, Alice Tully and Town Halls in New York; and a featured singer on one of Leonard Bernstein’s televised young people’s concerts.
Her concerts and her many recordings — including works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Ives, Copland, Gershwin and Kern — drew wide critical praise. Yet as late as 1990, decades after Ms. Nixon had made good on her vow to perform only as herself, she remained, in the words of The Los Angeles Times, “the best known of the ghost singers.”
Spend your afternoon revisiting some of her work and break your brain completely when it clicks that, duh, of course it was the same voice coming out of the mouths of Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, and Deborah Kerr and you should’ve known it all along.