Unless you were monitoring the credits, you didn’t know who you were seeing when the Sound of Music nuns were trying to solve a problem like Maria. But undoubtedly you had already heard the lovely voice of Marni Nixon, who died this week at age 86, in some of your favorite films.
By the time she played Sister Sophia in the 1965 musical biopic, the pretty redhead had “starred” in three of the most beloved and successful movies of all time.
A former child actress and violin prodigy, the young soprano had already forged a career in opera and popular music when she broke into Walt Disney feature films—in Cinderella soloing on “A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes” and in Alice in Wonderland as a singing flower.
A few years later she signed on to do Deborah Kerr’s vocals in The King and I after the contracted singer was in a fatal car accident. Nixon remained anonymous, but her renditions of “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” “Hello, Young Lovers” and other Rogers and Hammerstein compositions were very well received.
When Kerr accepted her next musical role, nightclub chanteuse Terry McKay, the California native was again hired to sing for the British actress. In that iconic 1957 love story, An Affair to Remember, she performed the title ballad as well as the Gaelic lullaby “Tomorrowland.”
In 1961 Nixon dubbed Natalie Wood’s Latino character Maria, singing tunes such as the lighthearted “I Feel Pretty” and the romantic “Somewhere” in the ground-breaking West Side Story. While Wood did some of the singing, Nixon was on standby to enhance or correct problems with her vocals as she had done for Marilyn Monroe, Janet Leigh in earlier films. She also sang for both Wood and Rita Moreno in the riveting “Tonight” quintet.
When she took part in Jerome Robbins’ musical drama, Nixon later said, she was bothered for the first time about receiving no personal credit when her songs were so integral to the tale of teenage lovers caught up in New York’s gang violence. She had also been denied royalties though Leonard Bernstein, who had composed the music for Broadway, gave her a portion of his own earnings. Eventually Nixon would admit her invisible role gave her an “eerie” sensation.
Nevertheless, her uncredited talent again took center stage when she became the musical voice of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in the highly acclaimed My Fair Lady. “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” are a few of her solos from the Lerner and Loewe score, which the public knew by heart because of its triumphant run on Broadway.
The Warner Brothers blockbuster won the Best Picture Oscar, as West Side Story had, and this time Nixon’s exquisite vocals gained national attention. A 1964 Time Magazine feature referred to her as “the ghostess with the mostest.”
Nixon can be heard in Gypsy and Can-Can, mainly on the high notes, and she played the grandmother in Disney’s 1998 cartoon Mulan. While she made several TV appearances, she focused more on opera and live theater, as well as teaching, in later years. She toured with Liberace and Victor Borge, earned two Grammy nominations, had her own cabaret act and often appeared on Broadway. Two of her three children followed her into the music field; her son, the late Andrew Gold, wrote his hit single “Lonely Boy” and the Golden Girls theme song.
In 2006 she published an autobiography entitled I Could Have Sung All Night and in 2008 she played Mrs. Higgins in a touring company of My Fair Lady, achievements that seemed to bring her career full circle. While audiences listened to rather than saw her most notable contributions, Nixon remains a vocal superstar whose legacy in the world of movie musicals is unparalleled.