Gillian is back in town directing Dear World. The following is an interview that took place prior to Cats and just after Tom Foolery had opened in the West End and had reached hit status. The immediate plans then were for her to mount the Broadway production – it was to be a return to the place where she learnt much of her trade. (1)
Before this her background was as a ballerina, revue artist, actress, choreographer and director having worked in most, if not all the entertainment mediums. The early party of her career – that leading to Sadler’s Wells – is told in her autobiography A Dancer In Wartime (Chatto & Windus).
Now, in her own words, here is how she became interested in the Musical:
I got my taste for Musical Theatre while touring the States with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet – I was a leading dancer in the company. In America I saw my first musicals and I was hooked. I was very ambitious as a ballerina, but when I saw the coming together of music, words and dance in the musical I knew that that was what I wanted.
I became the lead dancer at the Palladium, but it was not till Can Can, in which I played Claudine, that I really found my niche. I sang and danced then, as I did later in New Cranks, but I can’t sing anymore – I’ve ruined my voice shouting in rehearsals!
It was Collages, a dance revue that I created for the Edinburgh Festival and later played at the Savoy that really put me on the map. I did three films straight off: Wonderful Life, Everyday’s a Holiday and Three Hats For Lisa. Within a year I was on Broadway choreographing The Roar of the Greasepaint. Greasepaint was the first musical that I ever staged, and it was because of David Merrick (the American producer) that I got the job. Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse showed him the book and played him the score for Greasepaint in New York. He said that he was very interested in the show and that there was one person that they had to get to do it in England and that was Gillian Lynne; David had seen
Collages in Edinburgh and had been impressed with my work. We opened the show in Nottingham with Norman Wisdom, he was wonderful in it. David Merrick came to Greasepaint, he liked what I had done and bought it just like that, which was thrilling for me. Bernard Delfont was presenting the show and he also had Twang!! which was in deep trouble out of town, he decided not to risk Greasepaint in London but to co-present it on Broadway with David. So we all literally went straight to New York. Sean Kenny was brought in to do the set, which was wonderful, but it didn’t move all night, and I had to restage all the numbers. One of David Merrick’s conditions in buying the show was that Anthony and Leslie re-write the book and another was that Anthony should play the lead, he had already starred in Stop the World I Want to get off for Merrick on Broadway, and Norman, at that time, was not known there, it was prior to his starring in Walking Happy – a show, incidentally, that I would love to do here.
I came straight out of Greasepaint and did the Broadway production of Pickwick which was a difficult job as I hadn’t created the show in London, as I had with Greasepaint. But, Merrick insisted that I do it. It was while 1 was doing Pickwick that I received the script for The Matchgirls which was to become the first show that I was to direct as well as choreograph. So really my first training this side of the fence (for
musical theatre) was in America and not here, and I am so grateful for that training. I did one more show in America for David Merrick. I had just finished filming Half a Sixpence and I was sitting at home wondering what I was going to do next when the telephone rang and it was David asking me to get on the next plane out to New York. He wanted me to choreograph How Now Dow Jones. It was only later that I found out that
every American choreographer had turned it down! It wasn’t an unhappy experience but it was a difficult job. When I started on it there was absolutely no second act. It was all rather high powered, with Elmer Bernstein doing the music and Carolyn Leigh the lyrics. It was a totally American subject, quite an experience, but I’m grateful to it as it taught me so much.
I do find America different: it’s more exciting there, the pace is faster and the whole of New York is into theatre in a way that London certainly isn’t. But the actual working conditions aren’t that different, not for me anyway. I like to work one way – I plan ahead before rehearsals. I do everything from words. I get the script and the score into my head. Then I go into a room with my dance arranger and we build the show there. For the revival of My Fair Lady I went into the Drury Lane ballet room for two weeks and worked it out. I do not work it out step by step, I work out a style for each number and I plot the graph of most of it; then I rely on what happens on the day in the rehearsal. I have that kind metabolism that works best when I’m against the wall and everybody is standing there waiting to be told something. If I plan it totally I find I nearly always discard whole lumps because something comes to me on the day. But I always plan the music meticulously myself, bar by bar, all the effects, everything is built by me with the arranger. It means that when I go into the rehearsal room I know it backwards – it’s coming out of my ears!’
We asked if our producers were adventurous enough?
No, of course not! We’ve got no Jo Papps here. Cameron Mackintosh is one of the only ones who’s adventurous. It was Cam’s idea to get the Art’s Council for the backing of the big Leicester musicals. It was his idea for Tom Foolery. He spoke to me about it – we spoke about it for two years. It was always planned that I would do the show; it was more the question of who would amass the material. When we decided that Robin Ray was the right man, he and Cam worked together on the material. It’s not in me to do this side of it – I like to be presented with the material and then I can choose. I went into the first rehearsal with twenty-eight songs on bits of paper and four pages of link material. There isn’t a word in the show that isn’t Tom’s. I go to the States in September to cast the Broadway production; it will be cast with Americans. Of course there will have to be odd alterations; it’s a very personal show. There are only four people in the cast so when I find something that doesn’t totally fit somebody I will have to change it around. I made Robin Ray do things he’s never done before and I plan to get the same kind of performance in America. What governs the show are the words – it is planned to open in November. ‘
We then discussed the future
I would like to go back to the stage, but as an actress. Now that I am married I would adore some time when I was not so busy and as my husband, Peter Land whom Gillian met while working on My Fair Lady, is an actor so we could work the same kind of hours. If I was to return to the stage it would most likely be with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve worked a great deal with Trevor Nunn and John Barton. We did
The Comedy of Errors which should have been presented again this year, but has been delayed. Trevor and I went to New York to cast the show for Broadway. All we wanted was to take five of the English cast and American Equity said no, which was very disappointing. I had spent two weeks auditioning and we were sure that we had a better show than anything else showing on Broadway that season. There really should be free movement of talent across the Atlantic. I also worked for the RSC with Once in a Lifetime – when David Merrick saw it he asked Trevor and I to do 42nd Street but we both were committed to other jobs and could not accept. I’ve learnt a great deal from working with the RSC, how to probe a text and how to get detailed performances from the chorus. When I directed Offenbach’s Bluebeard for Sadler’s Wells I managed to get the chorus to act as individuals, but to do it I had to break every rule in the book. I would grab people in the breaks, I got them working late at night – they didn’t like it – but I fought the system and we got rave reviews because it did not look like the normal opera staging – they haven’t asked me since!
I’m hoping that Tom Foolery will have the same impact on Broadway as it has here, that would be very exciting. After the casting of it I come back here to direct and polish up Jeeves which is moving from the Lyric Hammersmith to the West End. I have other TV work including the television production of Tom Foolery for later transmission. There will be further productions of the show in South Africa, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Holland and Belgium.
Early next year I start working on the new Andrew Lloyd Webber show Cats, based on T.S.Eliot’s verse. Andrew has set it to music and it will be very much a dance show. What then? Well I think it will be unlikely that I’ll just choreograph another show without directing it as well, unless it was with Trevor Nunn or John Barton who I would always work with, they are so brilliant. But I don’t think I’ll do anything in the musical theatre that I don’t direct or at least co-direct myself – I’m much better when I’ve got the whole show in my grasp. .
I would like to direct Chekhov, simply because I think I’m going to be able to do it. I want to make a full length ballet of Turnandot for the Festival Ballet – I’m rather attracted to Eastern forms of dancing. And, I’d like to have another go at a Shakespearian musical, perhaps The Winter’s Tale.
(1) Tomfoolery did not open on Broadway but went to the Off Broadway’s Top of the Gate Theatre and Miss Lynne did not direct.
This article first appeared in Overtures Magazine in 1980.