Why Do Modern Movie Musicals Stink?

Lily McMahon, Arts Editor

Natalie Wood is best known for her powerful performance and killer vocals in West Side Story, but did you know that she wasn’t actually the one singing in the movie? Nope, the vocals for Maria were actually sung by American singer, Marni Nixon, while Natalie Wood lip-synced. This is a musical technique called vocal dubbing, where a performer lip syncs to another singer’s pre-recorded vocals. Most examples of vocal dubbing are done without crediting the original singer, creating ghost singers, while the star of the film gets all of the credit. This practice is a reasonably loose kept secret in the industry; even the popular musical Singing in the Rain is based upon the practice of vocal dubbing.

This practice has been prevalent since the early days of movie musicals, from Betty Wand dubbing for Sharon Vaughn in Funny Girl, to Bill Lee dubbing for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music. The iconic film Singing In The Rain comments on the issue itself, but ironically, Debbie Reynolds – whose character is a ghost singer – was actually being dubbed by Betty Noyes.

A modern-day example of this can be found in the Disney Channel original movie, High School Musical. Zac Efron couldn’t hit the high notes in the score, so Drew Seely recorded most of Efron’s part. Despite this example, the practice of vocal dubbing has significantly diminished throughout the past few decades. Some have asked, however, whether or not the practice should be brought back in full force. Now more than ever, when it comes to new movie musicals, the name of the game in casting has become “big-name celebrities.” This isn’t inherently a problem, but when these actors are cast solely on name recognition rather than actual talent, problems can arise. From Mary Poppins Returns to the nightmare on earth that is the Cats movie, the big selling point of 21st-century movie musicals are the A-list stars that are cast to play the lead characters. The 2016 film La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is especially guilty of these practices. These are two well-known and talented actors, but neither can sing, like at all. Ok, that might be a little harsh, but Stone and Gosling are far from what would be considered trained singers. To many musically inclined viewers, it was in this way that La La Land failed to live up to expectations. 

Another example is the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson, who is undoubtedly a fantastic actress and looks-wise fits the role perfectly; however, she relied heavily on autotune to sing throughout the movie. When I saw the film in theaters, I found myself cringing at points because of how painfully apparent the autotune was. In my head, when they were casting Watson in the role, no one on the creative team took a second and asked, “Wait, can she even sing?” That’s how bad the autotune is.

If Hollywood is going to continue to cast big shot performers that are not trained whatsoever, should vocal dubbing be reintroduced into the movie musical industry? In an ideal world, casting in these musicals should be done on merit alone, more similar to the practices on Broadway, but a twenty-something fresh face from New York isn’t going to get people in the seats. The creative teams, then, are left having to pick between sales and widespread success or going with a talented nobody. It’s safe to say that most of Hollywood will pick the sales. Others argue that by bringing back vocal dubbing, we don’t have to sacrifice quality for box office success. We can still have the A-list teen heartthrob in the next musical without losing the quality. The counter-argument, however, is that this dumbs down musical theater, creating a world where performers don’t have to be a triple threat to succeed. And while this is true, it doesn’t seem realistic for Hollywood to move towards casting unknown triple threats. For executives, at least vocal dubbing typically results in a product that sells. 

Vocal dubbing remains a moral gray area in the musical theater industry, especially as ghost singers rarely receive the credit they deserve. However, since the industry doesn’t seem to want to change their hiring process anytime soon, it may be the only option to ensure that movie musicals don’t stink. If viewers want a product of higher quality with great singers and big names, vocal dubbing seems like the logical answer.