Hearing the voice behind 'West Side Story'

UPDATE: This just in on June 13, 2013: Marni Nixon has had to cancel her scheduled appearance with the Baltimore Symphony this week due to what a press release from the orchestra describes as "a sudden temporary illness."  Read more on the Artsmash blog.



When the dynamic 1961 film musical "West Side Story" is screened this week at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Music Center at Strathmore, a bit of electronic manipulation will remove one of the most crucial elements in the movie — the orchestra.

Not to worry. Leonard Bernstein's sizzling score will still be heard complete, only played live by the Baltimore Symphony in sync with a showing of a recently restored print of the film.


"I want the orchestra to still be the star," said Eleonor Sandresky from the Leonard Bernstein Office Inc. in New York. She is associate producer of "'West Side Story' — Film with Live Orchestra," which has been making the rounds of orchestras since 2011, the 50th anniversary of the movie's release.

"When you strip out the orchestra [from the soundtrack] and play it live, it actually makes the film greater than it is by itself," Sandresky said. "The orchestration will be just overwhelming when you hear it. The bigness of it makes the emotional impact greater."

In a way, this business of taking something out of the original movie — for a good sonic cause — seems especially fitting in the case of "West Side Story," given that something was taken out of it for the same reason while still in production.

Natalie Wood was hired to play the teenage Puerto Rican Maria, the Juliet character in this "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired story about a tragic conflict between an Anglo gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican one, the Sharks.

When Wood started filming, she assumed that her voice — she recorded all the song tracks — would be heard in movie theaters. The producers had a different idea.

Cue Marni Nixon, the precociously gifted soprano who will visit Baltimore as a guest of the BSO to talk about her experiences with "West Side Story" in a pre-performance event Friday. (Three actors who played members of the Sharks and Jets gangs in the movie will also participate.)

When the film project got underway, Nixon was known to industry insiders for dubbing the voice of Deborah Kerr in the 1956 movie version of "The King and I." But studios preferred that such work be kept secret.

"I think they felt that if the public knew, it would take away the value of a picture," Nixon, 83, said from her New York home. "Now, they go overboard the other way. Good actors who are not equally good singers do their own singing."


Nixon was hired, at $300 a day, to be on standby for dubbing Wood.

"When I got the job, I didn't know how much of the singing I would do," Nixon said. "I thought maybe just Natalie's high notes. I just punched in every day. They would tell me what the lay of the land was for that day."

Several of those days found Nixon in front of the studio orchestra, singing the same music that Wood had just recorded for the soundtrack — "I Feel Pretty," "Tonight," "Somewhere" and other songs from a score propelled by Bernstein's indelible melodies and a young Stephen Sondheim's colorful lyrics.

In the control booth, the difference between Wood and Nixon was readily apparent to studio bigwigs.

"It's strange to think that the producers made some of their decisions knowing that they were casting a musical," Nixon said. "After filming began, I guess they were behind the eight ball."

Throughout the production, Wood continued to film scenes to the sound of her own pre-recorded voice, and she continued to attend sessions with a vocal coach in between.


"The coach would have to sneak a recording of her session to me afterward, so I could get a feeling of how she was phrasing," Nixon said. "It was very sneaky and very tricky."

Some examples of Wood's recordings for the soundtrack survive (everything seems to turn up on YouTube eventually). They reveal an earnest, respectable effort that might have satisfied on a small scale, but probably not on the big screen.

Still, the producers preferred to spare Wood's feelings, complimenting her frequently at playback sessions. (In Nixon's sparkling, hard-to-put-down 2006 book "I Could Have Sung All Night," Nixon recounts how studio musicians were a lot less diplomatic during Wood's recording sessions.)

The goal appeared to be to keep the actress from walking off the set. If so, it worked. When filming was completed, Wood moved on to another studio to start work on "Gypsy," a musical that better suited her voice — she did her own singing in that one. Meanwhile, cleanup for "West Side Story" began.

"With Natalie, the powers-that-be didn't pay attention to the fact that she was not quite in sync with her own track all the time," Nixon said. "Her own lip-syncing was off. She was not with the orchestra."

Nixon had to re-record several tracks that could, after considerable editing, be made to fit with what Wood's lips were doing onscreen, a painstaking process. It earned Nixon increased respect.


"Saul Chaplin [the film's associate producer] told me, 'We hired you not for your voice, but for your iron nerves,' " Nixon said.

The singer's chameleon ability to produce the right voice as needed was not put to the test just in the case of Wood.

Nixon also ended up dubbing some of Rita Moreno's singing in the picture. The actress was out sick when the "Quintet" number was recorded, so Nixon did double-duty dubbing — she's the voice of Wood and Moreno in that piece.

She also made a crucial, nonsinging contribution to "West Side Story." As Nixon tells it, the cast was a little punchy by the time they shot the final scene — the death of Maria's beloved Tony (played by Richard Beymer). The scene called for a distraught Wood to run to the body.

"She falls on him and says, 'You keeeled heeem.' All the actors would find something silly about that," Nixon said, "and would start giggling instead of weeping. Natalie would start laughing, too. They finally got one take they could use, but you could tell that Natalie was still trying to stifle her laughing. So they had me dub her lines in later — without the giggle."

Nixon had an easier time when she was hired to do the singing for another celebrated actress, Audrey Hepburn, in another hugely popular movie musical, "My Fair Lady."


"Audrey was very astute," Nixon said. "She could listen to her own track and know full well it was not quite right."

In the end, Nixon sang almost all of the score in that 1964 film. And by that time, her work as "ghost" singer was more publicly recognized (though still not with a film credit) and better compensated. For "West Side Story" and all the above-and-beyond that went with it, the studio refused Nixon's request for royalties.

"In the end, Lenny Bernstein gave up one-quarter of a percent of his own royalties," the singer said. "That was spectacular."

Nixon, who received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America from the Peabody Institute in 2011, has always been more than a dubber.

Her long career includes acclaimed performances of opera ("I loved Mozart") and musical theater, including stage productions of "The King and I" and "My Fair Lady" that gave her a chance to sing and act the lead roles.

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She also tackled thorny works by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez with great success, toured with Liberace ("A great showman, a good piano player … very funny") and Victor Borge.


Nixon doesn't seem to mind that her ghost work in films invariably gets so much attention to this day, and she has not tired of "West Side Story."

"It's just a brilliant musical, and they made it into such a good movie," she said. "I think it holds up very well. In the end, the play's the thing. You don't want to be aware of the dubbing."

If you go

"West Side Story," with live accompaniment by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. June 16 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $33 to $95. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

A roundtable discussion with Marni Nixon and three actors from the 1961 film "West Side Story" will be held at 7 p.m Friday at Meyerhoff Hall.