Launched last year, the Gillian Lynne and Peter Land Foundation continues the work of choreographer Gillian Lynne, whose widower Peter Land tells Nick Smurthwaite how the fund is helping students in need through the pandemic
As well as having a West End theatre named after her, Gillian Lynne’s legacy lives on through a trust in her name dedicated to supporting emerging dance and musical theatre talent.
Following Lynne’s death in July 2018, Her husband of 38 years, the actor Peter Land, set up the Lynne and Land Foundation last year, with patrons including Darcey Bussell, Judi Dench, Matthew Bourne, Patrick Stewart and Ken Robinson.
“The aim was always to encourage and support kids in the performing arts,” he says. “Gillie and I talked about it a lot before she passed away and we both made funds available. She insisted on having it in both our names. I wanted it to reflect and provide the kind of help that Gillie gave to so many performers throughout her career.”
The trust was launched last summer by the glitzy fundraising event To Gillie, With Love, produced by Land, which paid tribute to Lynne’s brilliant career, and which producer Richard Jordan heralded as one of his theatrical highlights of the year.
Because of the pandemic, Land and his trustees decided to bring forward the 2020 grants to help those students in need, so awards have already been made to the hardship funds of LAMDA, ArtsEd, the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Academy of Dance.
‘Gillie insisted on having the foundation in both our names to provide the kind of help she gave performers throughout her career’ – Peter Land
With no family in the UK, New Zealand-born Land says the lockdown has been “hard and sad”. He adds: “I normally have a hermitic quality but the one thing I’ve craved through all this is other people.”
Land arrived in the UK in 1977, having left behind a successful acting career in Auckland where he was a leading light at the Mercury Theatre. The person who persuaded him he could make it in the UK was the British actor George Baker, with whom he appeared in a film in New Zealand, based on a Ngaio Marsh story. “One day I asked George if he thought I’d survive as an actor in London. He just looked at me and replied: ‘You? Yes.’ I bought a one-way ticket the next day.”
Baker kept a fatherly eye on the young Land in London, encouraging him professionally and introducing him to the niceties of the Garrick Club (of which Land subsequently became a member).
Even so, Land felt like an outsider at first. It wasn’t until he met Lynne in 1978 that he started to settle in to the London showbiz establishment. Their first meeting was at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
“I’d been lucky enough to land the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, one of Cameron Mackintosh’s early successes, and Gillian Lynne was the choreographer,” says Land. “It was a meet-and-greet session for the cast, and there were all these stars – Anna Neagle, Tony Britton, Liz Robertson – and they all seemed to know each other.”
While he was trying to think of a way of slipping out of the circle bar unnoticed, Land caught sight of a striking woman, who had just arrived, with short blonde hair and wearing a black cat suit.
He recalls: “It was love at first sight for both of us. There were an awful lot of things that could have got in the pathway of that love, not least the age gap [Land was 27 years her junior], but it was never an issue for us. We behaved like schoolchildren.”
When they met, Lynne was already a renowned dancer and choreographer, having started out as a protégée of Ninette de Valois at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet), in the 1940s. Competing for leading roles against the likes of Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Grey and Moira Shearer, she decided to turn her back on classical ballet at the age of 25 and concentrate on choreography for mainstream musical theatre.
In an interview with The Stage in 2011, to mark the publication of her memoir A Dancer in Wartime, Lynne said: “I don’t know if I would have been good enough to be a balletic choreographer, whereas in musical theatre I knew I was good. I’ve always known exactly what I was doing in musical theatre. My standards are very high because I grew up under people like Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois.”
As a freelance choreographer and director, she worked with some of the biggest names in the business – Errol Flynn, Noël Coward, Sophia Loren, Jim Henson, Morecambe and Wise – and travelled all over the world with Cats and Phantom of the Opera, doing the choreography for 14 international productions of the latter.
She told The Stage: “I don’t just sweep in and give a few notes. I work flat out with them for several days. When Cats and Phantom were overlapping I didn’t really do anything else because it was all-consuming.”
Lynne’s hard work, and continuing success, was recognised by many awards and honours, including a DBE in 1997 and the greatest prize of all – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to rename the New London Theatre the Gillian Lynne Theatre in 2018, shortly before she died, making it the first ever theatre in the West End to be named after a woman who wasn’t royal.
Her mantra “Nothing happens without hard work” is often recalled by Land. “Gillie absolutely loved to work. She never stopped. She was still choreographing at 88. She did a beautiful production of Miracle in the Gorbals for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. She really loved being in a rehearsal room.”
Land cites the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats as a low point for Lynne. “They decided to redo the choreography, and Gillie didn’t take it well. If you denied her the rehearsal room, she wasn’t happy.”
The couple worked together 16 times over the years, including Dear World – a musical version of The Madwoman of Chaillot that played the Charing Cross Theatre – Pickwick and Cabaret.
Land also appeared in the 1980 National Theatre production of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo with Michael Gambon, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s All’s Well That Ends Well with Harriet Walter, which transferred to Broadway, and in Ruthless! The Musical, which also played in New York.
Their life together was a whirlwind of theatrical endeavour. He says Lynne’s devotion to work, her determination to stay fit and her belief in him, was chiefly what motivated him. After her death, he thought about giving up acting.
He says: “I still miss her enormously. She really did give me the strength to believe in myself. For a long period of time I was grief-stricken. I’m managing to move forward, and I’ve decided not to give up acting yet. I can’t see Gillie, but I can feel her presence.”
No doubt Land’s sense of isolation hasn’t been helped by the lockdown. Is he allowing himself to feel optimistic about the future?
“I doubt if theatre will come back this year,” he says. “The thing that has kept me believing theatre will come back eventually is the touring version of The Phantom of the Opera in South Korea. There are reduced audiences and health checks but it’s still happening. So there are ways forward. I just know there is a big throng of people eagerly waiting to buy a ticket. As a human race we need it.”