In recent years, we have seen a new trend in musicals that are made for television and film. That trend has been to cast a well-known actor in the lead, one not known for singing and dancing. Using high-profile actors would seem to deliver better ratings than using great but lesser-known Broadway singers.
As a fan of musicals, I have tuned in to watch these experiments, admittedly out of curiosity as to whether the star was really up to the task, and also due to the excitement and risk because some of these had their premieres on live TV. It seemed to me, predictably, that some of the actors sang and danced only passably, if that, leaving me to wish the producers had used real Broadway talent. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a few of these stars actually did get their start as singers and could manage better.
A Solution From a Voice Out of the PastIn every case, I confess that my mind and my heart went back to the great unsung singer Marni Nixon (1930–2016). At first, she was uncredited as a “ghost singer” whose lovely voice was dubbed into several movie musicals when the star’s singing was not deemed adequate, and they lip-synched to her vocal track (or she to their failed attempt). This eventually leaked out and became known by at least some people. I am old enough to remember having quite a letdown and no small feeling of betrayal when I learned that Natalie Wood’s Maria in “West Side Story” and parts of her role in “Gypsy” were not sung by Natalie Wood but by Marni Nixon!
Then I found out that the same interloper had made an impostor out of the perfect Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” and Deborah Kerr in both “The King and I” and “An Affair to Remember”! That list went on to include Jeanne Crain in “Cheaper by the Dozen” and even Marilyn Monroe in parts of her famous number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” plus several more.
It seemed that Marni Nixon was turning up everywhere, usually behind the scenes, but also on-screen as Sister Sophia trying to solve a problem like Maria in “The Sound of Music.” She sang the voices of the Singing Flowers in Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland” and the Geese in “Mary Poppins.” In all, she appeared on more than 50 soundtracks and also began to perform live roles in opera, live solo recitals, and as a soloist with The New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras. I remember doing a double take in college when the teacher put on a recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s spooky, signature atonal work, “Pierrot Lunaire,” and mentioned that it was recorded by, who else, Marni Nixon!
Weighing the Merits of 2 ApproachesAnd so I must return to consider the merits, or perhaps the lesser of evils, in having a real actor with an average singing voice or having a great singer provide the voice for a “fake” performance by a more famous actor. Of course, the ideal situation would be to find people who can do both well, like Julie Andrews. Alas, there may simply be too few of those in existence.
Yet, there would seem to be any number of great singers on the live Broadway stage who do act well enough to star in nonmusical movies, if only they were allowed to build name recognition and star status in that, too. Kristin Chenoweth and Mandy Patinkin come to mind as two from the world of the stage who made the leap into film and TV roles but also have the pipes to do musicals.
I will venture to speculate that the mediocre singing in some of the recent TV and film musicals would have been completely unacceptable to producers of the past. It might be that the public is less demanding of great singing now, or more used to hearing average singing. However, I doubt they would now accept the kind of overdubbing done by Marni Nixon, if they found out about it. Ironically, audiences of years gone by appear to have been more willing to suspend disbelief in that area, yet far more sophisticated than we in their expectation and discernment of great singing.