Gillian Lynne, the choreographer for Cats and The Phantom of the Opera who died Sunday in London at age 92, was remembered today by Andrew Lloyd Webber as a major figure in dance and a key in the the phenomenal global success the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

“Quite simply Gillian Lynne was a seminal figure in choreography for three generations, possibly four as her groundbreaking work in Cats is still being seen around the world,” wrote Lloyd Webber (read the entire tribute below).

Lynne, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to dance and musical theatre in 2014, died at the Princess Grace Hospital in Marylebone, London, last night. Her death was announced by her husband, actor Peter Land, who tweeted, “I am heartbroken to write that Dame Gillian Lynne DBE & my dearest wife & friend & love for 40 years passed away at 6.20pm tonight 1st July 2018 at the Princess Grace Hospital.”

Last month, the New London Theatre was renamed Gillian Lynne Theatre, becoming the first West End theater named after a woman. Lights at West End theaters will be dimmed in tribute tonight, and a short tribute will be read from the stage at Cats‘ longtime Broadway home Winter Garden at the curtain call for current tenant School of Rock.

Lynne began her career as a ballerina with Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the 1940s, and she went on to direct and choreograph numerous productions in London and New York. Her choreography for films and TV included Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983) and The Muppet Show (1976-1980).

Her work with Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn on 1976’s The Comedy Of Errors fostered an association that would lead to Lynne’s greatest triumphs: Cats and The Phantom of the Opera (she also choreographed Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love in 1990).

Here, Lloyd Webber remembers his longtime friend:

Quite simply Gillian Lynne was a seminal figure in choreography for three generations, possibly four as her groundbreaking work in Cats is still being seen around the world.

When I was a boy Gillian Lynne was the go-to name when you thought of British musical theatre. She was a principal ballerina in 1939 and by the mid 1960s she was the choreographic force behind British musicals such as Pickwick and The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd.

It was her collaboration with Trevor Nunn on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Once In A Lifetime and The Comedy Of Errors that lead to both Gillie and Trevor’s key roles in the creation of Cats.

At that time British dancers who could also sing and act were few and far between. The idea of a British musical with dance at its heart was unthinkable. It is no exaggeration that Cats opened with the only cast available who could have played their roles. It was Gillie’s depth of contacts from her ballet roots to her work in contemporary dance that made it possible to open Cats in Britain and prove the naysayers wrong.

Even so there were those in America, notably our New York producers, who could not believe that such an achievement in dance was possible by a British choreographer. They sent the legendary Michael Bennett, riding high on the massive success of A Chorus Line, to check out her work and tell them that the show should be reworked for Broadway. This is what he wrote to Gillie…

“While I was in London I saw Cats and wanted to tell you that I loved, loved your work… I’m in rehearsals in New York on a new show (Dreamgirls) call me when you get to New York and we’ll get together. In the meantime, congratulations on your enormous success.”

I could not put it more eloquently myself.

ALW 2 July 2018