The role of Mrs. Higgins, the mother of Prof. Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” requires an actress capable of expressing hauteur, exasperation and motherly concern, sometimes all at once. What it does not require is a singing voice, as it is among that classic musical’s few roles without a song.
Marni Nixon plays Mrs. Higgins in “My Fair Lady” this week.
Marni Nixon as Eliza in a 1960s revival of “My Fair Lady.” She sang the role in the film version.
So who has been cast in the New York Philharmonic's concert-style revival at Lincoln Center this week?
None other than Marni Nixon, perhaps the most famous singing-voice-without-a-face in the history of motion pictures.
“I’d love to have a song in the show,” Ms. Nixon said during an interview in her West End Avenue apartment in New York. “I’d love to be able to call up Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe and say, ‘Please, can you add something called ‘Mrs. Higgins’s Lament?’ But it isn’t going to happen, of course.”
Among her unseen roles were the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Margaret O'Brien in “The Secret Garden” — as well as, most famously, Audrey Hepburn in the Oscar-winning screen version of “My Fair Lady.”
Most recently, in 1998, she was the animated Grandmother Fa in Disney’s “Mulan.”
For her part, Ms. Nixon, 77, said she understood perfectly why the studio moguls chose to place famous faces in the starring roles and relegate her to the shadows.
“Hollywood wanted recognizable stars,” Ms. Nixon said. “And the fact that a lot of the stars couldn’t sing was only a minor inconvenience to the big producers.”
Her first dubbing job was for Miss O’Brien in “The Secret Garden” (1949). Miss O’Brien, 12 at the time, was one of Hollywood’s top child stars. Ms. Nixon was 19.
Her first major job, she said, was singing the role of Anna in “The King and I” (1956). “Deborah was tough to work with, but she was a complete professional,” Ms. Nixon said of Miss Kerr. “We worked on phrasing, we worked on interpretation, everything. It’s hard to believe now, but each number took a week.”
A dubber, Ms. Nixon explained, doesn’t simply substitute her voice for the actress’s voice. “The important thing is to sound as the actress would sound if she were doing the actual singing,” she said.
It being Hollywood, of course, sometimes the jobs verged on the ludicrous. Her work with Marilyn Monroe, for instance, in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), consisted of just one phrase in one song — perhaps the musical’s most famous, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The phrase: “These rocks don’t lose their shape.”
If the studio bosses had had their way, Ms. Nixon said, she would have done more. “Actually, the studio wanted her entire voice dubbed,” she said. “They thought her voice was silly. I thought her voice suited her persona beautifully.”
In 1964, when Ms. Nixon was tapped to sing Eliza Doolittle in George Cukor's screen version of “My Fair Lady,” one of her chief concerns was how the choice would sit with Julie Andrews, who had had great success with the role onstage but was passed over by Hollywood for the established star: Hepburn.
“I did the job,” Ms. Nixon said, “but I felt uneasy,” especially when she and Ms. Andrews later worked together in “The Sound of Music.”
The story is now part of Hollywood lore: Ms. Andrews came out ahead by starring in Disney’s “Mary Poppins” and winning the Oscar for best actress in the same year that “My Fair Lady” was released.
Ms. Andrews seemed to harbor no grudges, Ms. Nixon said. When the two appeared in “The Sound of Music,” she said, Ms. Andrews made a point of seeking her out, shaking her hand and saying, “I like your work.” (Ms. Nixon played one of the nuns.)
When Ms. Nixon was cast as Eliza in a City Center revival of “My Fair Lady,” Ms. Andrews helped her overcome anxiety about handling the role.