Gillian Lynne, the energetic ballerina who choreographed ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ dies at 92

Choreographer Gillian Lynne speaks during a press presentation to promote the musical "Cats" in Paris on April 27, 2015.
(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

Famed “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” choreographer Gillian Lynne, who both inspired and worked closely with theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, has died. She was 92.

The English ballerina died Sunday at Princess Grace Hospital in London, according to her husband, Peter Land, who confirmed her death on Twitter on Sunday night.

Land, her husband of 40 years, wrote that Lynne “leaves behind a huge legacy and is adored by many.” He did not share the cause of death.

A working nonagenarian, Lynne was described in the Los Angeles Times as “a small, slender blonde with the stamina of a hummingbird.”


She was a ballet dancer, choreographer, director, producer and writer. But she was best known for her choreography and collaboration with Webber on his ground-breaking feline musical “Cats,” which they followed up with another worldwide hit, “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Her work in dance and musical theater earned her the title Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2014. Lynne also won an Olivier Award for achievement in a musical on “Cats” and earned a special lifetime achievement Olivier in 2013. She was also nominated for two Tony Awards.

Webber bade Lynne farewell with a tweet and a tribute on Sunday, writing that “three generations of the British musical owe so much to you.”

Webber said that when he was a boy, Lynne was “the go-to name when you thought of British musical theatre.”

“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,’” Webber wrote.

“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,” he added.

“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.”

Last month, Webber and his wife Madeleine renamed their New London Theatre, which is currently running “School of Rock,” as the Gillian Lynne Theatre, making it the first theater in London’s theater district to be named after a woman.

Lights at theaters throughout London’s entertainment district will be dimmed for one minute before performances begin Monday night as a tribute to Lynne, the Associated Press reported.

As a child, Lynne was always moving, something that made her “a pain in the neck” for her parents, she told The Times.

“When I was little, they called me wriggle-bottom,” she said.

At 5, she moved so much that her mother thought she had a disease and took her to a doctor to check.

“He put some music on and went outside with my mother. Through the glass door he watched me leap about. He told my mother, ‘Take her to dancing class — now!’”

She began her professional career in 1942 at age 16. Two years later, she joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company during World War II, then quickly moved on to the Royal Ballet, which she departed for the London Palladium.

By the mid-1960s, she was a choreographic force: She became a leading director and choreographer, racking up credits for the Northern Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and Australian Ballet companies. Lynne also worked on TV specials for performers from a variety of musical genres, including Ray Charles, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Ringo Starr, Carol Channing and Shelley Winters.

“You have to fire up people with your own energy,” she told The Times.

Lynne directed over 60 productions in the West End and on Broadway, worked on 11 feature films and hundreds of television productions as a producer, director, choreographer and performer, according to her website.

“I believe in friendship and love, but I’m tough,” she told The Times. “I expect people to work hard and passionately — in this business, you have to.”

Lynne also earned a BAFTA for her 1987 dance dramaA Simple Man,” which she directed for BBC TV. Later in life, she earned a Moliere Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award from the Royal Academy of Dance, which elected her vice president in 2012.

In 1997, she was named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from the queen and made a dame in 2014 for her services to dance and musical theater.

“In our world, if you come up through dance, you either give it up at 50 — except I didn’t, because I did ‘Cats’ at 52 — or you’re hoist with your own petard, because if you leave off, you’d just disappear into a lazy, old, uninteresting person,” she told the Washington Post in 2008.

“I can’t imagine a life where I don’t think things up and go to rehearsal and help actors mold something they didn’t think they could do.”

Lynne is survived by her husband, Peter.