Musical film stars who were dubbed (and others who should have been)

Matthew Hemley
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Do you know who Marni Nixon is? Shamefully, I didn’t until I watched the BBC’s Secret Voices of Hollywood programme just the other week.

In case you missed it, the documentary examined those performers who provided the singing voices for stars of musical films such as Singin’ in the Rain and South Pacific. It was a revelation.

For example, did you know that between 1930 and 1960 around half of all musical films featured “ghost singing” – where the singing of a film’s star was replaced with the voice of someone who could actually hold a tune.

[pullquote]We would all have liked Russell Crowe’s voice to be dubbed on the Les Mis film (or better yet, have someone in the role who could actually sing)[/pullquote]

One of the most in-demand ghost singers was Nixon, who it emerged in this documentary was nicknamed “the ghostess with the mostest”, having provided vocals for, among others, Deborah Kerr in The King and I. For this Nixon was paid £10,000. The film took £21 million at the box office. I’d say Nixon was had.

Nixon also popped up in the documentary again, as the ghost singer for Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Wood, it transpired, was able to sing, but the producers decided her voice wasn’t up to scratch – and brought Nixon in. Turns out Wood may not have known she was dubbed until she saw the film on opening night. Ouch.

In the same film, Rita Moreno’s vocals on A Boy Like That were replaced by Betty Wand. Moreno, in the BBC documentary, appeared to take issue with this – claiming Wand’s voice was not “guttural enough”. Bitter much, Moreno?

The documentary was fascinating. Who knew so many stars were not actually singing – from South Pacific (where Mitzi Gaynor appears to have been the only performer whose real voice was used) to The Sound of Music, which saw Christopher Plummer’s voice dubbed by Bill Lee.

Of course audiences from the time wouldn’t have known (most producers insisted ghost singers could not reveal the truth). And according to one of the documentary’s talking heads, viewers didn’t notice the ghost singing because “the eye is more powerful than the ear”. Which seems to suggest audiences would rather have seen a name – than see a performer on screen who could actually sing. Basically, the message was: “If you look good but can’t sing, don’t worry about it, we’ll get someone else to make you sound good.”

If only that still applied today. Admit it! We would all have liked Russell Crowe’s voice to be dubbed on the Les Mis film (or better yet, have someone in the role who could actually sing) and it would have been nice if the producers of Mamma Mia! had used a ghost singer for Pierce Brosnan.

It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of imagination to have seen this done. I understand some of Zac Efron’s singing in High School Musical was dubbed, as was Minnie Driver’s voice as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera film.

I can see why producers of High School Musical wanted Efron (he has box office appeal) but in the case of Driver, I don’t see why the producers could not have just given that particular role to someone who could sing the part in the first place. It’s not like Driver was a huge “name” at the time. And then, to prove she can actually sing (just not operatically), Driver was given a number to perform over the end credits (Learn to Be Lonely). Bizarre.

But back to Brosnan and Crowe, and in both of these cases the “name” was clearly more important than the voice. Safe to say neither would have stood a chance if their films were made between 1930 and 1960.