Casting Musicals: Big-Name Actors or Little-Known Talent?  

The legacy of the ubiquitous Marni Nixon
October 12, 2020 Updated: October 19, 2020

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.

This new casting vogue, with all its mixed results, has included Glenn Close in the role of Nellie Forbush in a 2001 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” We saw country-pop star Carrie Underwood attempt the role of Maria in a 2013 TV version of “The Sound of Music.” The list of actors in musicals on film goes on to include Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman (“Moulin Rouge,” 2001), Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan (“Mamma Mia,” 2008), Hugh Jackman (“The Greatest Showman,” 2017; with Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables,” 2012), Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast,” 2017), Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (“La La Land,” 2016), and Emily Blunt (“Mary Poppins Returns,” 2018).

Moulin Rouge Screening
Actors Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman did their own singing in the 2001 musical “Moulin Rouge.” The actors here are at a special screening for the film at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles on Nov. 26, 2001. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

A Solution From a Voice Out of the Past

In 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!

Actress Marni Nixon
Actress and singer Marni Nixon in Hollywood, Calif., in 2011. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

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!

Nixon taught at the California Institute of the Arts and even hosted a children’s television show in Seattle in the late 1970s and early ’80s, for which she won four Emmy Awards. She won several other awards, the most prestigious being the 2011 George Peabody Award for Outstanding Contributions to American music.

Nixon was known for having a personality as lovely as her voice, though she was not entirely lucky in love. Her first husband and father of her three children, Ernest Gold, was known for composing the classic theme for the movie “Exodus.” She married twice more and began to battle breast cancer in 1985, eventually succumbing to the disease in New York on July 24, 2016, at the age of 86, having lived nothing less than a rich, fabulous life.

Weighing the Merits of 2 Approaches

And 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.

CSA Aritos Awards
Mandy Patinkin and Kristin Chenoweth both began in musical theater before moving on to nonsinging roles. The actors attend the Aritos Awards in New York on Nov. 27, 2001. (Gabe Palacio/ ImageDirect)

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.

American composer Michael Kurek is the author of the recently released book “The Sound of Beauty: A Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life” and the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com