My Fair Lipsync

Here’s an interesting titbit of behind-the-scenes trivia about My Fair Lady that fans of the musical film might enjoy.

Most people know that Rex Harrison more or less spoke his way through his ‘singing’ numbers and that Audrey Hepburn’s voice was mainly dubbed by Marni Nixon – but things are never quite as simple as they are reported.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had tried to adapt George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a musical long before Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, but came to the conclusion that it was impossible to adapt musically. Their main reason was the character of Professor Higgins who is cold, intellectual and unemotional, all of which would work against the classic idea of the musical number that grabs you by the heartstrings. Lerner and Lowe solved the problem by leaving the character cold and aloof but getting a great actor to play the part, instead of a great singer. They actually wrote the role especially for Rex Harrison, and based his songs on the idea that Higgins should not sing outright, but talk on pitch – expressing ideas rather than emotions.

This worked well on stage, but created problems when it came to filming. Because of the way Rex Harrison talked through the musical numbers, the studio wasn’t able to follow the usual process of prerecording them and have him lip-sync to the final cut. To get round this they rigged up a wireless microphone and hid it under his tie. Paradoxically, though, this meant that Harrison’s lips and words were completely in sync and everyone else’s looked off – because they were lip-syncing. Apparently when everyone is lip-syncing, it’s not noticeable, but when one person is spot on, it makes the others stand out. The studio’s response to this was to play around with Harrison’s soundtrack, lengthening and shortening notes in places, so that his sync-ing is slightly off, like all his fellow actors.

Audrey Hepburn practiced her numbers for months with a singing coach and arrived in Hollywood two months early to record them, with Andrew Previn. When shooting began, the studio told her that her voice wasn’t strong enough and that she would be dubbed. Hepburn was so shocked and disappointed she walked out. However, she showed up again next day and apologized for her “wicked behaviour”.

She was codded along by the studio that she would only be dubbed – by Marni Nixon – where it was essential, the implication being that it would only be in a few numbers. In the end, Nixon sings about 90 per cent of the time – and had to learn to speak cockney in order to do so. But Audrey’s voice was still used in a number of significant places.

Hepburn’s singing appears in the first verse of “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins”. However, when the song takes off into the soprano range (76 seconds in), Nixon takes over. Hepburn sings the last 30 seconds of the song as well as the brief reprise. She also sings the sing-talking parts for The Rain in Spain. She also sings some of Wouldn’t it be Luverly.

Weirdest of all is that during the parts of Wouldn’t it be Luverly using Audrey Hepburn’s own singing voice, her lip-syncing does not match her own singing as well as it does Marni Nixon’s singing. The explanation is that Nixon recorded her vocals to the song after the number was already filmed – and so had many rehearsals to match Hepburn’s lip movements accurately.

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