‘Some might say I’m just a ‘snobby old professional’

Gillian Lynne. Photo: Greg Heisler

My interview with Gillian Lynne is prefaced with a polite request from her PR. “Gillian would appreciate it,” I’m advised, as we approach Lynne’s handsome Hampstead property, “if you didn’t focus too much on Cats and The Phantom of the Opera”.

I’m initially dismayed, a little disappointed. Cats and Phantom are, after all, two of the biggest shows in musical theatre history. And Lynne choreographed them both. How can we avoid focusing on them?

[pullquote]I find it bloody maddening. It’s not that I am not proud of Cats and Phantom – who wouldn’t be? It’s wonderful that they are still going around the world, and we look after them remarkably well. But they were just two shows[/pullquote]

Easily, it transpires. She is a famed choreographer, dancer and director whose career began in 1944, when she was a leading soloist aged 17 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet – later the Royal Ballet. Since then – as her own ten-page CV reveals – she has moved from being a performer to choreographing and directing. And not just in theatre, but in television and on film.

She performed as a star dancer at the London Palladium in 1951, choreographed Roar of the Greasepaint on Broadway in 1965, and the film Half a Sixpence in 1966, and in the same year worked on the musical The Match Girls at the Globe Theatre, now the Gielgud. That production, incidentally, marked the first show that Lynne both choreographed and directed – something she has continued to do since, most recently with Jerry Herman’s Dear World at the Charing Cross Theatre.

But right now we’re still only in 1966.

Cats didn’t figure in Lynne’s career until 15 years after this – Phantom 20 years later.

Before them there are three more pages of CV to plough through, with endless credits and achievements to ponder. In between Cats and Phantom she did the musical staging for the film Yentl.

And in 1987 she conceived, choreographed and directed the BBC dance drama A Simple Man, before choreographing Aspects of Love in 1990 and working on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002.

So it’s easy to understand why Lynne might get a tad disappointed that so much attention is paid to two productions she has worked on in a career spanning eight decades.

I decide to tread carefully.

Lynne, 87, greets me like an old friend, kissing me on both cheeks before leading me in to her front room and offering me some tea and chocolate cake.

When we meet she has only just returned from a trip to New York (during which she checked up on The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, something I’m told she does regularly – although I daren’t ask) and is also recovering from a period of illness.

She is apologetic that the Gillian I am spending time with today may be slightly “under-par” – not her usual energetic self. I would never have known. The woman before me is spritely, youthful and sharp, with enough stories to keep you entertained for a week.

During our chat she recounts tales of working with Noel Coward, Dudley Moore – with whom she devised the show Collages in 1963 – and, of course, Lloyd Webber.

The reason we have come together today at all is to talk about the Olivier Awards, which took place last weekend and saw Lynne pick up an outstanding achievement prize.

How did she feel when she found out she had won this?

“You could have knocked me down with a feather,” she exclaims. “I was totally amazed by it. I don’t know why. I suppose I have been at it longer than most. There are people in this business who are very good at putting themselves where it’s at, and at selling themselves. If I’d had to rely on that I would not have got anywhere. I am useless at it.”

She adds: “I am only good at doing the product. My joy is being in the rehearsal room with my actors and dancers.”

Although many productions that Lynne has been involved with have won Olivier awards, she herself has only ever won one as an individual before now. That was for Cats, in 1981, which earned her the ‘outstanding achievement of the year in a musical’ award. It was, she says, for her choreography. But at that time there was no category honouring choreographers working in theatre. “Thank God I did some good for my profession – after that they thought: ‘This is ridiculous, there has to be something’,” she beams.

Lynne here turns her attention to the role of a choreographer, and how she feels people – even today – don’t appreciate the part they play in a production. In fact they do so much that many choreographers turn to directing because that is a lot of what their job entails.

With Roar of the Greasepaint, for example, Lynne says there were 19 numbers, and just 20 minutes of book. “I was thrown in at the deep end,” she says. “People think choreography is just a few steps. They don’t stop to think, does the director do all that other stuff? All that moving around, all that surging, all that acting? And of course they [the directors] don’t. That’s why most of us, who are any good at all, want to do both, something I have done since 1966.”

She adds: “People have said to me, even in the last few years, ‘Isn’t it nice you now get to the do the whole thing’ and I look at them with venom in my eyes.”

And how has she found working on those productions that she has choreographed but not directed – especially where the directors have been men? “Sometimes I am not very popular because I am strong and I know very much what I want and what we should be doing,” she says. “Sometimes I think directors would prefer it if you were not strong. But in the end they are relieved you are because you take a lot of the heavy stuff off them.”

Gillian Lynne (left) with Margot Fonteyn
Gillian Lynne (left) with Margot Fonteyn

Lynne, surprisingly, didn’t set out to be a choreographer.

She says that she “loved being a performer” and had no “burning desire” to be a choreographer. But it slowly seemed to take over, beginning in 1961 – a year in which she choreographed and staged England Our England, which had a score by Dudley Moore. He also composed the score for The Owl and the Pussycat, a ballet Lynne choreographed for Western Theatre Ballet the same year.

She and Moore got on “like a house on fire” and went on to work on the jazz ballet Collages together.

When she began work on this production, she had no company of dancers to make use of, so set about forming her own. “I found people out of Covent Garden who were restless like me,” she adds. “They did not want to do just classical, but there was nothing between classical and showbiz.”

Collages, she adds, put her and Moore on the map. “We were a huge hit,” she says. “And I had to laugh when everyone raved about the dance show Contact [which came to the West End in 2002]. We had done that 100 years before. We combined ballet with jazz and words.”

Soon, choreographing and directing meant she stopped performing herself. She still misses it, she admits, but is enjoying the directing and choreography work that has come her way – including Cats and Phantom, and recently Dear World.

I bite the bullet, and ask whether she gets angry that people – journalists – often only mention her association with Cats and Phantom.

“I get so bored,” she exclaims. “I find it bloody maddening. It’s not that I am not proud of Cats and Phantom – who wouldn’t be? It’s wonderful that they are still going around the world, and we look after them remarkably well. But they were just two shows. People forget I have done 11 movies. They forget that. It’s just laziness – it’s very easy to just say ‘Cats and Phantom’.”

After Cats and Phantom, Lynne worked with Lloyd Webber on Aspects of Love.

She was also asked to come in and do some work on his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, a few months after its opening.

But she turned the offer down.

“He asked me to go and do some work on it, but I said. ‘No, I am a creator not a fixer’,” she says, laughing. “Very grand I was.”

She adds: “I would have loved to have worked on it. But I made six points that I would need to put right on the show. I said ‘We’re talking about a directorial job aren’t we?’. And I felt miserable as I knew I could have done something with it. I still think I can and I am going to have a go at it.”

So why didn’t Love Never Dies take off? “It was a waste of the most beautiful score,” she sighs. “But it had the wrong team working on it – Jerry Mitchell as choreographer and Jack O’Brien directing. And it’s very difficult for me to say that. But there is a yearning and sadness in Andrew’s music and they did not hear it.”

If she was unimpressed by facets of Love Never Dies, she’s even less impressed by television talent shows – such as those used to cast Lloyd Webber’s musicals.

Lynne says that, of the contestants on such programmes, only very few have “real talent”.

She says that she is what some might call a “snobby old professional – a boring pro”, and adds: “But theatre today does not make theatre people – not worthy talents. It manipulates other talents and shifts them into the theatre.”

When she directed and choreographed Dear World she says she opted for “brilliant performers who could really act and really sing”.

Here she reflects on performers today, saying many don’t appear to have the respect for theatre that she and her peers did growing up.

She recalls working at the Palladium as a dancer in the 1950s, and finding it a “huge privilege” to be on stage there. She describes being in that space even today as an honour.

But she was saddened not to see this passion for the venue shared by performers she encountered while working as the choreographer on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002.

“The Palladium pulls everything out of you. It’s beautiful and it needs playing,” she says. “It needs clarity and huge strength and focus. When I was working on Chitty I was stood on the stage saying ‘Isn’t it divine?’ but the actors didn’t get it. They took it for granted.”

She adds, with a sigh: “That was shocking to me.”