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Marni Nixon Reminds Us Why She's Awesome

The legendary "ghost voice" gives us her take on the NY Philharmonic's Carousel, Liberace, and acting alongside hand puppets.

Marni Nixon
Not everyone can get to The New York Philharmonic's concert staging of Carousel. PBS will be broadcasting the performance into living rooms around the country later this year, but we thought, why wait? So we phoned our favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein veteran, Marni Nixon, and asked for her take on the show.

But here's the problem: When you have the legendary Marni Nixon on the phone, the voice that hit 1,000 high notes for the likes of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in some of our favorite classic movies including The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady, she of the four Emmy awards and recent Peabody Award recipient for Outstanding Contributions to American Music, it's hard to limit the conversation to one thing. You want to ask her about everything. So that's exactly what we did. In addition to her thoughts on Carousel, Marni talks about learning improv from Liberace, one-upping Victor Borge (for one glorious moment), and "discovering" Kelli O'Hara. And then she sang us a few bars of "Summertime." The whole experience gave us a reason to live, so here's the edited version for you to read at home.

What did you think of the NY Philharmonic's production of Carousel?

It was absolutely gorgeous and delicious. The conductor was right with everyone. They were so well rehearsed. The director, John Rando, the conductor, Rob Fisher, and choreographer, Warren Carlyle, were great. Everyone was great.

I thought the dancing in the second act was … Tiler Peck was spectacular. That choreography of that dance [was] so well thought through. Everyone looked very natural, the sets [had] just enough touches and off-kilter angles, the costuming was good, and the chorus came on so easily.

Since you're trained in opera, were there elements to the performances that were particularly impressive that opera-novices might not pick up on?

It was cast with such operatic voices…their vernacular and diction was perfect. Stephanie Blythe knocks you out with her voice. Yet you were aware of [this being] a music theater experience in the best of ways, sound-wise, acting-wise, singing, it was all very centered.

Something I never talk about really, or don't like to, is the sound engineering. The microphones must have been body-miked for everyone. [I]t was…wonderfully seamless and the balance between the orchestra was spectacular. It was all one. I was shocked. It was just…it seemed like it flowed.

How was Kelli O'Hara? You two have worked together before, but what was it like to watch her perform?

[She has] an understanding of what she's doing dramatically, plus the vocal prowess of music theater, plus classical singing …I had met her first when we were doing Follies on Broadway [in 2001]. She was an understudy for the young Heidi and I was playing old Heidi, and I didn't know she was on one night, my scene was choreographed in such a way that I couldn't see her at first, but I could hear her voice and I was just riveted by it. From then on, I said I ‘discovered' her, which isn't really true, but I felt like she was spectacular.

We also did a New York Philharmonic performance of My Fair Lady. I was playing Mrs. Higgins…and she was playing the lead [Eliza Doolittle]. [S]he said to me after our first rehearsal, ‘I was so scared to hear you played it on Broadway… and playing the role in front of you…I was afraid I wouldn't do it right.' She is wonderful.

You have so many facets to your career, like in the late 70s and early 80s you hosted a critically-acclaimed children's television show, Boomerang, which went into reruns for 25 years. Can you tell us how you got involved with the show?

I moved up to Seattle, Washington, where I lived for a time, and [was] asked…if I would do a children's show, so we improvised with some students of mine who had puppets. I wrote a little script for the hand puppets--it was me and my adopted son Norbert, who was a puppet, and his friends--that became the focus of the show, and then I officially got the part. We won twenty-six Emmy awards and I got four of those for my performing.

I also heard that you were the sidekick to both Liberace and Victor Borge?

I traveled with each of them quite extensively and we improvised a lot of funny things together. I learned so much from Liberace when I first went on tour with him. He was a spectacular showman. He knew what he was doing and how to react on stage. We did a lot of improvising with the speeches in between my singing and he wouldn't tell me what he was going to say…it was like thinking on your feet. And every show, after I came off stage, he would ask me if I remembered how I answered -- I was so scared I never did -- but then he would repeat back to me what I said. He remembered everything and would say ‘then tomorrow I'm going to ask you the same question and then another question and you have to think of different responses.' He was always adding new things.

What about Borge?

Being able to react to Liberace on stage was very informative to me, [but] Victor Borge was completely the opposite. I never knew if what I did or said was good. It was completely free for all, but what I learned from Liberace, I ended up doing myself…you end up trusting your immediate reaction. [Victor] gave me surprises. [On] the first night I entered behind him singing "Summertime" [she starts singing] and he could hear my voice, but [pretended] that he didn't know where it was coming from. He would look in every place where I wasn't until the last minute. Then, when I sat down on the piano bench he would look like he was totally shocked. I used to put a high note [in the song] and he would start to look around right before the high note, like there was a mosquito on my shoulder and hit my shoulder right when I hit the high note. He expected it would get a laugh because he thought I would stop singing on cue, but I didn't stop and the audience laughed at that, and the joke was on him, but he always topped it. He was very funny. And I'm sure that's why he didn't fire me.

For those of you who want to see Marni and her legendary "ghost" voice in action, the internet provided us with this dubbing test from The Sound of Music: