Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant reminisce about recording Maria's and Tony's songs
In the multi-Oscar-winning 1961 film version of West Side Story, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer appear as Maria and Tony — but the stars' singing voices were provided by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, who dubbed every note of their vocals for no credit and relatively little pay. More than a half-century after they recorded "Tonight," "Somewhere" and a handful of other immortal Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim songs for the soundtrack, Nixon and Bryant granted TSR a joint telephone interview, she speaking from New York and he from Los Angeles.
The Sondheim Review : What a privilege it is to get one of the most famous singing couples in film and recording history on the phone. Did you two record your West Side Story duets together?
Nixon : It was several processes. We recorded some things together, but I recorded other parts separately.
Bryant: You know, Marni, I found some acetate rehearsal discs of the three of us — you and me and Natalie Wood — singing together in the booth. I remember Natalie showing up [at the recording sessions] with her husband at the time, Robert Wagner. I think she recorded all of the score, and then Marni came in later and replaced all of Natalie's singing.
TSR: The keys of most of the songs in the film version are considerably lower than in the stage show. Did anyone on the musical staff work with either of you to determine which keys were best for your voices?
Bryant: No. They had given the part of Tony to Richard Beymer, who was a little older, and they told me they thought my voice would sound too teenage-y and wouldn't match his voice if I sang the songs in the original keys. So that's why they brought them down, but no one worked with me to set the keys. They just said, "This is it."
Nixon: Same with me. I think the keys were set based on Natalie's capabilities, and then I just filled in for her.
TSR : Did you record with the orchestra, or did you sing to tracks that had already been laid down?
Bryant: I recorded live with the orchestra. Every time.
Nixon : So did I — at first. As I remember it, they did each take with Natalie singing and then with me singing. They told Natalie they were going to take those recordings, piece them up, and decide whose voice was going to be used for each measure or for particular notes.
TSR: But I'm guessing she never recorded the high note at the end of the "Tonight" ensemble.
Nixon : No. There were some sections where it was planned from the beginning that I would do the singing. But as it happened, they threw out all of her vocals, and I came back and post-dubbed everything to the orchestral tracks.
TSR: Were Bernstein or Sondheim present for any of the recording sessions?
Bryant : I'll tell you a story I heard: Leonard had written a wonderful score for On the Waterfront, but in the final mix for the film, they covered a lot of his music with taxi horns and other sound effects. So he took an oath never to work in Hollywood again.
Nixon: I never heard that!
TSR: The West Side Story soundtrack is one of the best-selling albums in history. If it's not too upsetting, please tell me about your financial compensation for your stellar performances.
Bryant: I worked for basic scale. I had a friend who told me, "Go get an agent, or they'll screw you." But I was terrified, and I needed the money at the time; so I signed the contract they offered, and I didn't get any kind of royalties. I had come to town just a few years before West Side Story, so I didn't know anything about anything. The best thing that happened to me on the film was that [vocal supervisor] Bobby Tucker got them to put me on a weekly salary for about a month and a half, so I made some decent money that way.
Nixon: In my case, I had recorded the whole thing, and no contract had been prepared or signed. During the recording, they paid me on a daily rate; I punched in every day. When it was done, I got an agent who specialized in recordings, and he told me, "Just make your demands and hang on. Tell them they can't use an iota of your voice in the film unless you're given a royalty." So that's what I did. I was scared to death, because I thought maybe they would wipe out my voice completely and re-record everything. But of course, they weren't going to do that. I think they were over a barrel, but they told me they didn't have any more royalty percentages to give out. Finally, Bernstein — with whom I had worked in New York, doing some concerts — gave me a quarter of one percent of his royalties on the recording.
TSR : The LP was incredibly popular in its day. What was it like to think that millions of people were listening to your voices but no one had a clue it was you? Did you feel bitter or regretful about that?
Bryant: No, not really.
Nixon: In those days, to ask for credit would have been unheard of. But I got the feeling that because this was such a huge picture and such a well-known property, it was going to set some sort of a historic precedent. That's why I held out for royalties — for myself, and also because I thought it was unfair that other people in similar positions were not getting credit and not getting royalties.
TSR: You recorded those beautiful songs under challenging circumstances — having to try to imitate the voices of Wood and Beymer, singing in keys that weren't ideal for your vocal ranges and so on. When all is said and done, are you pleased with your work?
Bryant : Yes. I was under the thumb of Jerome Robbins [during the recording sessions]. He never once spoke to me personally, but he would come running up to Bobby Tucker and say, "Tell that boy not to sing so much. If we wanted a singer, we would have hired Mario Lanza!" He wanted me to sound like a 16-year-old, which was fine. That's what the part was. So I tried to do what he wanted and to give a good performance.
Nixon: Overall, I'm happy with how it turned out. But there was a bit of a problem because they had filmed Natalie's songs to her own vocals, and they hadn't paid attention to the fact that her lips weren't always in synch with the recording. Obviously, I had to stay with her lip movements when I looped the vocals, even when she was a little bit off. But when she would turn to the side, then I could be right with the orchestra.
TSR: I always wondered why, when Maria launches into the big tune in the "Tonight" duet, there's a huge close-up of Richard Beymer's face. Then I read somewhere that this was one of the sections where Wood's lip-synching wasn't completely in time with the music, so that's why they cut away from her.
Bryant: I didn't have any problems like that in West Side Story, because Richard lip-synched to my voice, and I didn't do any dubbing after the fact. But it did come up when I dubbed "The Tapioca" in Thoroughly Modern Millie. James Fox had already filmed the number, and then they decided they didn't like his voice, so they brought me in, and I had to sing it while watching the picture. The thing is, he wasn't always in perfect rhythm, so it was difficult. Fortunately, they were able to do some cutting and pasting, so it worked out all right.
TSR: As you both know, West Side Story is going to be screened in L.A. and New York with the orchestral tracks removed and with, respectively, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic playing along. How do you feel about that?
Bryant: Well, they do that with a lot of movies now.
TSR: But, to my knowledge, usually not with musicals. And in this case, apparently, the voices and the orchestra no longer exist on separate tracks, so the orchestrations are somehow going to be removed or subdued electronically.
Nixon: I think it would have been wonderful if they could completely separate the orchestra from the vocal tracks — or if Jimmy and I could come in and sing it again!
MICHAEL PORTANTIERE has been a theatre journalist and photographer in New York City for more than 30 years.