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Marni Nixon: Follies Girl

The "ghostess with the mostess" joins the starry cast of the Sondheim revival at the Belasco. logo
Marni Nixon
Marni Nixon will probably always be most famous for having provided the singing voices of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in the big-screen adaptations of The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. Less famously, she also helped Marilyn Monroe with some high notes in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes flick. And kiddies of all ages know her as one of the nuns who ask the musical question "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" in the blockbuster film of The Sound of Music

But Nixon's career has embraced lots of theater, concerts, and live performances of all sorts. Her stage work seems to have increased markedly over the past two decades: Following a stint as the host of an Emmy Award-winning children's TV show called Boomerang that emanated from Seattle, where she lived for most of the 1970s, Nixon moved to New York and returned to the stage in the Off-Broadway musical Taking My Turn (1983). She has since kept herself busy in such shows as Opal at the Lamb's Theater, and she cites Fraulein Schneider in a mini-tour of Cabaret as a favorite among her recent roles.

Nixon made her Broadway debut in 1954 in The Girl in Pink Tights. But she didn't return to the Main Stem until last season, when she and a stellar company brought James Joyce's The Dead to life at the Belasco Theater. (Nixon later toured with the show.) Now, she is about to join the cast of the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, again at the Belasco. Though one wag suggested that the lady nicknamed "the ghostess with the mostess" might have been hired to sing offstage for Blythe Danner and/or Judith Ivey, whose warbling in the show has been criticized, this is not the case; Nixon is replacing Joan Roberts as Heidi Schiller, the aging classical soprano who shares the Lehar-esque waltz tune "One More Kiss" with the ghost of her younger counterpart, played by Brooke Sunny Moriber. (Neither Nixon nor the show's press agent would say exactly why Roberts is leaving Follies so soon; the cast otherwise remains intact, though word is that Marge Champion and Judith Ivey will also be exiting in the near future.)

"I had auditioned originally," says Nixon of the revival. "I was up for it until the very last minute and then, evidently, they went in a different direction. Of course, I was disappointed, so I'm happy to be a part of it now--though I'm sorry that I had to cancel something dear to my heart. I was going to play the Imogene Coca role in On the Twentieth Century for the Barrington Stage Company. I was really looking forward to doing that, because it would have been a real departure for me."

Though The Dead wasn't as successful as it deserved to be, that show was a boon to Nixon in more ways than one. "I had a mastectomy last March, in the middle of the run," she relates. "All through the summer, and in the fall in Washington, I was doing chemotherapy and radiation. But I was able to go on with wonderful support from everybody; I was only out of the show for two weeks. When you're going through something like that, it's a blessing to have something to focus on." Now, she says, "I feel great. I'm

Marni Nixon and Sally Ann Howes
in James Joyce's The Dead
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
all through with the radiation. It's okay to talk about it. In fact, now that I'm going into Follies, it's like, 'Okay, I can use this. I'm a survivor, too!' "

To one degree or another, both The Dead and Follies are about mortality. The shows are therefore well suited to the Belasco, as the theater is supposedly haunted. Far be it from Marni Nixon to pooh-pooh that legend--certainly not after the paranormal experience she had during the run of The Dead. "I was facing the audience in one scene," she begins her ghost story, "and at a certain point during every performance, I would see a sort of a golden glow on the back wall of the theater. I think was the only one who noticed it, because everyone else onstage was facing toward the side. Then, during one performance, I saw the silhouette of a hooded figure walking past the glow. It looked so strange to me because the figure was larger than the size of a normal person, and the way it was walking was very unusual. Later, backstage, I saw the maid talking to the doorman. I told her what I'd seen and she said, very matter-of-factly, 'Oh, that's the ghost. That's what she looks like. She's dressed in blue and she wears a hood.' I think there are supposed to be two ghosts: Belasco and this woman I saw. I told the rest of the cast and they all said, 'Oh, I wish I'd seen her too.' It made me feel like I had had a special kind of vision. It wasn't spooky at all; it was kind of fun!"

So Nixon isn't afraid to return to the old theater on West 44th Street. On the contrary, she's very much looking forward to her first performance in Follies on May 28. "I've signed through July 15," she says, "and then the show will go to a Broadway contract." (She's referring to the fact that the nonprofit Roundabout performs under a LORT agreement that allows it to pay wages far below the normal Equity minimum to performers during the first several months of a show's run.) Though it's possible that more people have heard Nixon sing Stephen Sondheim's lyrics than just about any other performer via the immensely popular West Side Story film and its soundtrack album, Follies will mark the lady's first time onstage in a Sondheim musical. "I keep getting these new rolls in my life," she says. "That's r-o-l-l-s. Things keep rolling along! Wonderful parts keep opening up, and I'm happy that I'm ready for them."

Heidi in Follies would seem a perfect assignment for Nixon, whose crystalline, pinpoint soprano remains in excellent condition after more than half a century in show business; but she initially hesitated in taking the role. "Frankly, I almost decided to stay with On the Twentieth Century," she admits, "because I really wanted to do that part. But my agent said, 'Are you kidding?!' Of course, Follies is on Broadway....and it's going to be a thrill to be with all of those stars. You know, one of the things you look into when you take a job has nothing to do with the role itself; it's all about the general feeling backstage. I would never want to go into a can of worms and be faced with negativity all the time--especially not after what I've been through. But I hear that Follies is the opposite of that. It's a very happy company. And that's lovely."

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