Ghost Singers: The Ones You Never Knew You Forgot

Marni Nixon / Courtesy of masterworksbroadway.com
Marni Nixon / Courtesy of masterworksbroadway.com

Whether or not you’re a fan of musicals, you have probably heard of productions such as West Side Story, The King and I, and My Fair Lady. These shows were crafted into screen productions at one time and have maintained their character, even through the spins of technology changes. The romantic story lines and catchy chorus numbers hold a timeless snapshot in the hearts and memories of the audience they once captured. However, you may not even realize you’re forgetting to remember the real voices behind the songs you used to annoy your parents with.

Ghost singers do all the work and receive none of the credit. They are professional vocalists who dub the musical numbers officially credited to other people, usually the lead roles in a musical or film. The idea behind this is said to have originated in 1953 with the hit musical, The Band Wagon. The casting director paid no attention to whether or not the actors he was hiring to star in the musical, could actually sing a note. When he realized that a pretty face didn’t mean a pretty voice, he found India Adams, who agreed to dub vocals for Cyd Charisse “credit free.” The agreement, for Adams I’m sure, came from an urge to fill an empty wallet and have some temporary comfort while striving to pursue her music career. If only the young starlet would’ve known just how long her vocals would live on.

For years, while these beautiful voices hadn’t gone unnoticed, the men and women behind them were hidden far behind the main screen (we’re talking size seven font in the credits). It wasn’t that the lead actors ever denied the fact that someone else sang for them, it was that no one asked. The concept, especially years ago in the 50’s when movies were magic to their viewers, was impossible to fathom. Honestly, it probably would have been comparable to the moment you found out your parents leave the dollar bill under your pillow when you lose a baby tooth. Not the tooth fairy.

While ghost singing was extremely popular years ago, there’s a new form of it today. Some artists ghost sing for themselves by recording sub-par tracks in a studio, layering them with auto-tune, and lip-syncing over the song during live performances.  While leading men and women years ago accepted the credit for the vocal performances in their films, at least they were only doing what they were told. It was a new concept that all involved agreed upon, and it seemed like a win-win for the big screen. But the vocalists behind the love and loss scenes were invisible.

There were only a handful of “ghost singers” who alternated behind the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Jeremy Brett, and Natalie Wood; Marni Nixon being the voice that made some of the most magical scenes come to fruition. She is now an 84 year-old who still has a voice as strong as her passion for using it. She has sung her way through many musical films, operas, and stage performances, but she is perhaps most well known for her work in West Side Story. “I feel pretty, oh so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and gay, and I pity any girl who isn’t me today.” We’ve all heard it before, and it’s okay if you sang it playfully around the house pretending you were getting ready for your first real date (if you didn’t, well then, me neither). But we never knew the humble woman who lacked all the credit for the voice she provided us with. 

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