The Art of Dubbing

There was a really excellent documentary on the telly box the other night, a BBC4 survey of how major film stars have had their singing voices dubbed over the years. The most famous exponent of the art is Marni Nixon (still with us at 83) providing Deborah Kerr’s singing voice for The King and I, Natalie Wood’s for West Side Story (unbeknownst to Miss Wood, apparently) and Audrey Hepburn’s for My Fair Lady (though Hepburn’s own voice was used in ‘Just you wait ‘enry ‘iggins’). I didn’t know that Nixon had provided all the high notes for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nor that she was paid a straight fee for her work rather than a royalty, so keen were the studios to hide the fact that the on-screen stars couldn’t actually sing. Leonard Bernstein thought this wildly unfair and personally arranged for a percentage of his West Side Story recording royalties to be assigned to Marni – a good deed in a naughty world. She must have made a few bob from that – at least, I hope so. Nixon’s first actual screen appearance was in The Sound of Music when she was seen singing the part of Sister Sophia.
Other well-known examples are (the uncredited) Betty Noyes in Singin’ in the Rain. She dubbed ‘Would You?’ and ‘You are my lucky star’ for Debbie Reynolds who was herself playing the part of an actress dubbing the voice of a the silent film star played by Jean Hagen (who used her real voice…). In he film of South Pacific, Giorgio Tozzi dubbed Rossano Brazzi (much to the latter’s chagrin), Muriel Smith sang ‘Bali H’ai’ for the delightful Juanita Hall and Bill Lee crooned ‘Younger than Springtime’ for John Kerr. Of the principles, only Mitzi Gaynor had her own voice used in the film.
The BBC doco had a wealth of unusual out-takes including Christopher Plummer doing his best with ‘Edelweiss’ – followed by the scene that was actually used with his voice dubbed by the same Bill Lee from the South Pacific recording.

Classical music has been known to use the same technique on occasion, the best-known example being Elizabeth Schwarzkopf popping in the top notes for the ageing Kirsten Flagstad at the end of the Liebestod in the legendary Furtwangler recording of Tristan und Isolde. Less well-known is Giuseppe di Stefano who was edited in to sing a small tenor part in Act 2 of La Traviata – just the four words ‘La cena e pronta’ (‘Dinner is ready’). Maestro Riccardo Muti was not happy with the original (unnamed English tenor) who was originally booked for the recording. Not known at all is the fact that Russell Watson had a series of top notes dubbed for him about 5 years ago by Welsh tenor Wynne Evans of Go Compare commercials fame. You won’t find it in his credits. Watson’s people were anxious to hush up the fact that their boy’s voice wasn’t up to it at the time. Just like the old days of Hollywood!

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