Fair casting in “My Fair Lady”


I just read a piece of theater-casting news that made me very happy. Marni Nixon has been cast as Mrs. Higgins (mother to Henry) in the American tour of the Trevor Nunn production of My Fair Lady, which is reputed to be quite good.

This makes me happy because there’s something so karmically right in casting Marni Nixon in this role. (I guess this is where the average non-musical-theater geek asks, “Who’s Marni Nixon?”)

Well, in her first on-screen performance, she played the nun in The Sound of Music who noted (regarding Julie Andrews‘ Maria), “She always seems to be in trouble, doesn’t she?”

But Nixon is best known as the off-screen, uncredited voice of some of the biggest movie musicals of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. She sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). Therefore, casting her in a live production of My Fair Lady is an absolutely wonderful incidence of what thelinster calls “meta-casting” — casting someone with a previous, significant connection to either the material or other cast members.

But back to her uncredited singing roles — does it seem odd to anyone else that during the heyday of movie musicals, it was a common practice to cast nonsinging leads? It seems to me that one of the first questions one asks when casting the lead in a musical is, “Can she sing?”

In the case of My Fair Lady, I suppose Audrey Hepburn could have been cast because no actress who could sing was available. Except for Julie Andrews, of course. Who was nominated for a Tony Award for the stage version of My Fair Lady.

And who went on to win the Academy Award for her singing role in Mary Poppins that same year. (Marni Nixon was the uncredited singing voice of three animated geese in that movie!

Obviously, this type of casting is a marketing decision. Jack Warner, of Warner Bros., put it bluntly:

Why did I choose Audrey Hepburn instead of Julie Andrews, the original Eliza (for ‘My Fair Lady’)? There was nothing mysterious or complicated about that decision. With all her charm and ability, Julie Andrews was just a Broadway name known primarily to those who saw the play. But in Clinton, Iowa and Anchorage, Alaska … you can say Audrey Hepburn, and people instantly know you’re talking about a beautiful and talented star.

And it’s not as though casting Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr or Natalie Wood is exactly stunt casting. (However, I have my own visual of the pitch meeting for West Side Story. “Hmm … who should we cast as Maria? Well … how about Natalie Wood? She isn’t Puerto Rican, and she can’t sing. She’s perfect!”)

Of course, this practice still occurs, albeit without as much egregious dubbing. Unlike her Chicago co-star, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger was neither a singer nor dancer.

And looking back a few years, I still wonder why a dancer was not cast in Flashdance (or Footloose for that matter). Jennifer Beals was certainly lovely (and I’m thrilled she got her big break back in the day.)

But she was also a complete unknown, so it wasn’t as though her name would be more of a draw than some nubile young Broadway type who wouldn’t have needed a dance double.

But, regardless of how I feel about past or present casting practices, I plan to see Marni Nixon in all her glory when My Fair Lady comes near New York. If you’re interested in the show, you can find tour information here.

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