Gillian Lynne, choreographer, director, dancer
Born February 20 1926; died July 1 2018
Gillian Lynne, who has died aged 92, was a key player in the rise of high-end musical theatre in the UK during the 1980s. As the choreographer and associate director of Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenally successful 1981, Lynne was an equal creative force with director Trevor Nunn.
Lynne’s slinky ensemble routines brought T.S. Eliot’s parade of back-alley felines from his volume of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, to pulsating life in a way that has defined every production since. The original London production ran for eighteen years, and at one point was the longest running show on Broadway. Cats made Lynne a millionaire, and she went on to work with Lloyd Webber as choreographer on The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and Aspects of Love (1990).
Cats may have been one pinnacle of Lynne’s long and flamboyant career, but she had long been the mainstream theatre world’s leading choreographer of choice. Her fusion of classical ballet with cabaret and jazz moves saw her crossover from the Royal Ballet to working with Frank Zappa and The Muppets, with all of her work powered by an innate sensuality that in Cats blossomed into something spectacular.
Gillian Barbara Pyrke was born in Bromley, Kent to her father Leslie and her mother, Barbara. Gillian was destined for her future career from an early age when, aged eight, her mother took her to a doctor, concerned about her daughter’s level of hyper-activity that had earned her the affectionate name of Wriggle-Bottom. The doctor put on some music and asked her mother to leave the room with him, where they observed her through the glass breaking into a spontaneous dance routine. There was nothing wrong with her, the doctor said, she was a natural dancer and must take lessons.
When Gillian was thirteen, her mother died in a car crash, and she ran away from home. After she was found, her father read about the Cone Ripman School, now the Arts Educational, and Gillian won a scholarship. She acquired her new surname aged fifteen, when dancing with a company called the Ballet Guild, whose director billed her as Gillian Lynne in the programme. The name stuck, and by the time she was sixteen she was dancing the Swan Queen at the People’s Palace in Mile End.
Lynne joined Sadler’s Wells alongside Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer, and between 1946 and 1951 was a principal at the Royal Ballet. After being passed over for a role, Lynne took a significant sideways turn when she became star dancer at the much more showbizzy London Palladium.
In 1953 she appeared opposite Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae, choreographing her own dance routine. After being a TV and stage regular over the next decade in musicals, pantomime and revue, Lynne’s breakthrough as a choreographer came in Edinburgh with Collages (1963), an expressive mash-up of classical and jazz dance styles she conceived, directed and starred in supported by a Dudley Moore soundtrack. Collages was spotted by Broadway producer David Merrick, who took Lynne to New York to stage the numbers for The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd (1965), a musical collaboration between Leslie Bricuse and Anthony Newley.
By that time, Lynne had choreographed the musical numbers for three films, Wonderful Life (1964), Every Day’s A Holiday (1964) and Three Hats for Lisa (1965), vehicles respectively for pop stars Cliff Richard, John Leyton and Joe Brown. Lynne later worked on Half a Sixpence (1967) with Tommy Steele and the film of Wolf Mankowitz’s Charles Dickens-based musical, Pickwick (1969), with Harry Secombe.
On television Lynne was choreographer on The Val Doonican Show (1970), a cosy contrast to her tenure on Frank Zappa’s crazed feature, 200 Motels (1971). Later films included The Man of La Mancha (1972), and Yentl (1983) with Barbra Streisand. Lynne’s ability to move between worlds also saw her become one of two choreographers on Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show (1976-80).
The roots of Lynne’s involvement in Cats date back to 1973, when she struck up a friendship with producer Cameron Mackintosh while working on The Card, a West End vehicle for Jim Dale. It was Mackintosh who introduced her to Lloyd Webber after the composer had seen her work in Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company productions of The Comedy of Errors (1976) and Once in a Lifetime (1979).
Cats’ bold sung-through narrative led by Lynne’s well-drilled choreography became a sensation, and ran in the West End for 8,949 performances, winning Lynne an Olivier Award. On Broadway, where Lynne was nominated for a Tony, the show ran for 7,485 performances. Lynne went on to oversee more than a dozen productions across the world, most recently for the 2014 West End revival.
“It’s like my child,” Lynne told the Herald in a 2016 interview, in which she put the success of the show down to the three key elements of “Sensuality, sensitivity and sexuality.”
Aside from her other collaborations with Lloyd Webber, Lynne won a Bafta for her direction and choreography of the L.S. Lowry-based TV ballet, A Simple Man (1987), and a year later created a stage version for Northern Ballet, which was revived in 2009. She also worked with the Bolshoi in 1998, and in 2002 choreographed the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the West End and Broadway.
In 2014, with Birmingham Royal Ballet she presented a new version of Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals, a show she had been in the cast when it premiered seventy years earlier.
Lynne’s first marriage, to Patrick Back, ended in divorce. In 1980, she married actor Peter Land, and nearly turned down Cats because of it.
“That’s why the show’s so sexy,” Lynne told the Herald, “because there’s all of our sex in it.”
In 1997, she was appointed CBE for services to dance and in 2014 she was made a dame. A memoir, A Dancer in Wartime, was published in 2011. Never one to let up, in 2014 she even released an exercise DVD, Longevity Through Exercise.
Last month, Lloyd Webber renamed his New London theatre, where Cats had first been performed, as the Gillian Lynne. With Lynne wheeled in on a golden throne surrounded by dancers dressed as characters from the show, it was a fitting entrance onto the stage of the first West End theatre to be named after a woman.
“I think it’s good that Cats unites people in the way that it does,” Lynne told the Herald, “and I think it might be useful in that way, even though people don’t realise it. It’s uninhibited in every way, and is so different from life, and yet, it is life.”
Gillian Lynne is survived by her husband, Peter Land.
The Herald, July 5th 2018