Monday, March 1, 2010

Why Aren't You Singing?

A couple weeks ago, I was watching “The Sound of Music” and a friend of mine told me something that I found startling: Christopher Plummer (Captain Von Trapp) didn’t do his own singing in the movie. Now I know it was the norm in the 1960s (and still is today) to dub people’s voices in movie musicals, but I have often asked the question “Why?”
One of the best known voices of movie-musicals is “The Voice of Hollywood,” Marni Nixon. You’ve undoubtedly heard Nixon, even if you don’t realize it, as she provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” just to name a few. For years, I wondered why Nixon was always the voice, but never the face in these fine movies. Did she not have the face for cinema? No, it isn’t that. She’s one of the nuns in “The Sound of Music” and she isn’t non-photogenic.
In “West Side Story,” only George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn, along with the ensemble, do their own singing all the time, with Rita Moreno doing her own singing some of the time. In the little seen “The Phantom of the Opera,” Minnie Driver’s voice was dubbed by one of the ensemble singers because she isn’t a soprano. What’s so hard about casting people who can actually sing the part your filling?
I think it boils down to star-power for the most part. In 1961, Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno and Richard Beymer were recognizable names in Hollywood. Marni Nixon, Betty Wand and Jim Bryant, who did all their singing, were not. In 2004, Minnie Driver was a recognizable name in movies, with the rest of the film was full of unknowns (Gerard Butler was not yet a household name).
The funniest thing about all of this is that the big scandal in the 1952 musical comedy “Singin’ in the Rain” is that Debbie Reynolds’ character Kathy is hired to dub all the singing for Jean Hagen’s character Lina. Seen as unthinkable in the 1920s when the film is set, it became the norm in less than 30 years later, when “Rain” was made, no doubt meant as a commentary on the new trend.
I happen to think that you have to be able to do your own singing and dancing in musicals. That’s the way it was in the 30s and 40s, that’s the way it is on stage and that is how it should be.

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