From Audrey Hepburn to Zac Efron: a brief history of dubbed singing in Hollywood

Christopher Plummer was far from the only Hollywood star to discover his or her singing parts had been junked in favour of someone more mellifluous. Playback singers, or “ghost singers”, were once widely (if secretly) used to dub tuneless actors – and they haven’t quite disappeared. Here are some of the most notorious examples.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)

“Put the blame on Mame,” croons Rita Hayworth’s sultry casino singer in the film noir, though we can in fact blame Anita Ellis, a Canadian singer who dubbed all her songs in the movie.

Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Some cheek this, given that the plot of the classic musical revolves around a ghost singer who isn’t given credit for her performances. In truth, on several songs it wasn’t 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds who was ghosting for Jean Hagen’s movie star Lina Lamont, but the (uncredited) singer Betty Noyes.

Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Monroe may have wowed audiences singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, but it was playback singer extraordinaire Marni Nixon – who would go on to be nicknamed the “ghostess with the mostest” – who was hitting the high notes on her behalf. She can also be heard singing Deborah Kerr’s parts in The King and I three years later.

Marni Nixon with Liberace in 1966.
Marni Nixon with Liberace in 1966. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Leslie Caron in Gigi (1958)

While the soundtrack is arguably best remembered for Maurice Chevalier’s highly questionable Thank Heaven for Little Girls, Leslie Caron also had a number of songs as Gigi, voiced by Betty Wand (who also sang some of Rita Moreno’s parts in West Side Story).

Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961)

Though Wood was not told throughout the filming of Bernstein’s musically tricky score, the intention was always to replace her singing parts with Marni Nixon. It led to a tricky atmosphere on set, Nixon said; Wood was understandably furious when she found out.

Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964)

Nixon again, singing all of Hepburn’s parts, and helping the movie win a best picture Oscar (as West Side Story had also done). “In the case of Audrey Hepburn, she was very smart and could say: ‘I know this is not good enough,’” Nixon said later.

Peggy Wood in The Sound of Music (1965)

Plummer wasn’t the only actor dubbed out of The Sound of Music: it is not Peggy Wood singing Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but Margery McKay. Notably, though, the film includes a rare on-screen appearance by Nixon as Sister Sophia (that’s her singing “a will o’ the wisp” in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?).

Zac Efron in High School Musical (2006)

Perhaps surprisingly, ghost singers haven’t quite died off yet. It may come as a shock to some millennials to learn that it wasn’t the preteen heart-throb Efron singing in most of High School Musical, but Drew Seeley. Efron sang on the sequels, though. “That was a very huge point for me,” he said. “I had to put my foot down and fight to get my voice on these tracks.”