When singer-actress Marni Nixon ran into some difficulties while providing Natalie Wood’s vocals for the film “West Side Story,” musical director Saul Chaplin told her, “We didn’t hire you for your voice, we hired you for your iron nerves.”
Nixon laughs at the memory, but her experience dubbing the vocals for Wood, who played Maria, was more than a little challenging. She describes many of her stories in her 2006 autobiography, “I Could Have Sung All Night,” but audiences can hear her work when the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Leonard Bernstein’s lush score while screening the movie Friday through Sunday at Symphony Hall. At the Sunday performance, Nixon will be interviewed on stage by Joyce Kulhawik, former WBZ-TV entertainment reporter, before the concert.
By 1961, when the Broadway hit “West Side Story” was being filmed, Nixon had already dubbed vocals for Margaret O’Brien in “The Secret Garden” (1949), Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), and Deborah Kerr’s vocals in “The King and I” (1956), so her reputation as the “Ghostess With the Mostest” was already established. (In 1964, she would go on to dub Audrey Hepburn’s vocals in “My Fair Lady.”) But Wood was musical herself — she performed her own vocals the following year for the film “Gypsy” — so she had no interest in having someone else’s voice substituted for her own.
“The problem is the quality of the voice when it becomes extended,” says Nixon, on the phone from her home in New York. “You have to be able to sustain it and let it flow like a river.”
The studio, however, allowed Wood to believe she would be providing all the vocals and brought in the two performers, first Wood, then Nixon, to sing all the music with an orchestra.
“They told her they would only use little snippets of my vocals, for the high notes she couldn’t reach, and then they’d wink at me,” says Nixon, “so I had to act as if I didn’t know what was really going on.”
Once the filming was complete, the studio threw out all of Wood’s vocals, and Nixon went into the recording studio to dub in her voice over Wood’s on-screen performance.
“It was very difficult,” says Nixon, “because in addition to preparing the song within the context of the character, my role in dubbing also involved learning the tone of the actress’s speaking voice and extending that into singing. I also had to learn their speech patterns and syntax and integrate all of that so that it felt seamless.”
Nixon said she studied Wood’s performance in the film for hours to get the dubbing right. Wood prerecorded her tracks and then lip-synched to them during filming, but, says Nixon, “because they knew they weren’t going to use her vocals, they didn’t always pay attention to whether or not she was in synch. I had to watch her lips every second and hedge when they weren’t facing the camera. I did it over and over again to get it right.”
As if that weren’t enough, Wood’s costar Rita Moreno, who played Anita, also had a dubber, but when that singer became ill, Nixon stepped in for some of the vocals in “Tonight.”
“It was a little odd,” Nixon admits, “because I’d rehearse the songs by myself without seeing the other performers. Eventually I got to see the movie.”
When the Leonard Bernstein Foundation began thinking about ways to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, Eleonor Sandresky, a New York composer, producer, and performer who serves as the Bernstein office’s licensing associate, says the idea of a concert version seemed perfect. But in putting the concert and film together, she too, ran into synching problems. “Forget about the fact that there were five pianos used in the film score,” she says from her New York office. “The score needed to reflect different timing because the way a live orchestra plays isn’t the same as the way the music is recorded in a studio.
Tracking down a usable score took Sandresky on a 14-month hunt, until she finally found a “short score” among film director Robert Wise’s papers that served as a roadmap for the film’s conductor. But even with that music, everything had to be reorchestrated for the concert stage.
There was no room for adjustments for Nixon, who not only had to work around someone else’s mouth movements but also received no credit for her work. Although Nixon’s contract required her silence about her dubbing work, she said word got around. “The industry thought that if audiences knew it wasn’t the star they saw singing, that might devalue the film,” says Nixon. “I was sort of angry about that, first because if they can hire people for the camera and have it dubbed, why couldn’t they hire someone who could do both? I also felt dubbers should get credit, just like key grips and stagehands get credit.”
Because Nixon, 83, had a busy career as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic and continues to perform on TV and in her one-woman show, she never looked at dubbing as her primary career. “I am a singer, performer, and teacher,” she says. “Dubbing was just one aspect of my work.”
After her appearance at Symphony Hall, Nixon goes into rehearsal for a reimagined production of “I Remember Mama” with the Transport Group in New York. “I like live theater a lot,” she says, “and I’d love to perform in another Broadway musical.”