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Fa, a Long Long Way to Come

Marni Nixon adds to her eclectic career the singing voice of spunky 'Mulan' grandmother.

June 25, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fans of movie musicals will probably recognize the singing voice of Mulan's spunky Grandmother Fa in Disney's current animated hit musical, "Mulan."

Though June Foray, alias Rocky of "Rocky & Bullwinkle" fame, is the speaking voice of the spry senior citizen, it is Marni Nixon who supplies Grandmother Fa's lilting soprano singing voice.

Nixon, 68, is cinema's most famous ghost singer. She trilled such standards as "Shall We Dance?" for Deborah Kerr in "The King and I," "I Feel Pretty" for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" for Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady."

But her dubbing duties have just been one aspect of her long, eclectic career. Born in Altadena, Nixon was a child actress who segued into opera and choral work as a teenager. She played Sister Sophia in the 1965 Oscar-winner "The Sound of Music" and played Jack's mother in a TV musical special of "Jack in the Beanstalk," which aired on NBC in the late '60s.

Nixon, who recently finished a six-month East Coast tour in "Cabaret," chatted about "Mulan" and her career over the phone from her home in New York City.

Question: Does "Mulan" mark the first time you have sung in a Disney movie?

Answer: I have done a lot of Disney movies over the years, way in the past. This is the first one I've done recently, within the past 10 years.

Q: What other ones did you do?

A: One was called "Perri" and I did, of course, "Mary Poppins." I did three Cockney geese in the movie. Three of them, harmonizing with myself.

Q: And now you are the singing voice of Mulan's feisty Grandmother Fa. When you provide the singing voice for an animated character, do you try to match your voice with the actress who is the speaking voice of the character?

A: Doing the voice for a Disney film is different than dubbing for an actress because they are writing and changing the storyboard and what the character looks like and their concept of what it sounds like all along [during production].

In this case, they showed me the drawing of what the action was going to be in a real simple sketch. I went in seeing the picture of the person in my mind. [Before], they had played for me the actress' voice. I listened to this voice and said to myself, "This voice is so unlike my voice there is no way I should come in to even audition for this. But when they showed me the drawing of what Grandmother Fa was going to look like, I said I am going to make it a character [and not try to match the actress' voice]. Then I got the part. After I recorded the singing voice, they threw out that particular actress' voice and then got another actress to play the speaking part. June Foray did the voice, so maybe they matched up her voice to mine. I don't know.

Q: Grandmother Fa is such a wonderful, funny character.

A: I think it's a wonderful movie. We saw it again last night here in New York with a whole bunch of kids in the audience. I was upset though. I've seen it three times and some of the laugh lines got cut out because they were laughing so hard at the previous laugh lines. So I have to come back to hear it all.

Q: Did you begin your singing career as a child?

A: I was a violinist, first of all, from 4 years old. I was playing with a symphony orchestra, a children's training orchestra from 7 or 8 years old until I was about 15. I started singing before [I was 15]. I had won some contests. I was doing dramatic stock company [plays] as a child actress, too, just in the Los Angeles area. Singing seemed to be easier to me than practicing my violin. So I just gradually moved into voice.

Q: Even as a teen you dubbed Margaret O'Brien's singing voice in 1949's "The Secret Garden." How did your dubbing career begin?

A: Well, it's sort of done behind the scenes. It's not through an agent or anything. I had done some choral work with Roger Wagner. When Ingrid Bergman hears the angel voices that drive her crazy in [the movie] "Joan of Arc," I was one of those voices. Word just gets around that you can use your musicality. The music departments just call you and say, "We have this dubbing job and please come in."

In those days I was doing choral work and jingles to make a living, while I was carrying on my concert career. I was then traveling around the country as a vocal soloist. I am talking about still being in my teens. Gradually, it went into the '50s and the dubbing [continued]. I think the first big one was "The King and I." I was really a lucky to be part of that era.

Q: How did it become known that you were the singing voices for Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn?

A: Well, I don't know. It was very carefully guarded. I was sworn to secrecy. I just think other people began to know and gradually people became more aware of that process over the years. As the movies were reissued, everybody was much more open about it. Now, even though the movies don't give me credit, some of the albums, without my raising a finger, have given me credit.

Q: Are you still performing in concert?

A: I have been doing a lot of more dramatic roles--straight drama. I have been doing some Shakespeare here. Also, I am going into a production of a musical version of "On Golden Pond."

I do a lot of chamber concerts. I am onto some new recording projects which I don't want to talk about. I am preparing to tour around the country with [a one-woman show], which is the story of my life.

I don't even think of myself as a dubber any more. When this Disney thing came along, I thought, "Oh, gosh. I don't do that any more." But this is different. It's not really dubbing. So I said, "Why not?"

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