Whilst the Gillian Lynne Theatre is a modern building it has been a site for entertainment since Elizabethan times.
The first production in the current building was a television recording of Marlene Dietrich’s one-woman show and the first full production was The Unknown Soldier and his Wife in 1973, written by and starring Peter Ustinov. Subsequent productions include Grease with Richard Gere, Bruce Forsyth’s one-man show and Sheila Hancock in Deja Revue.
1981 saw the debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats starring Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep, Paul Nicholas, Sarah Brightman and Bonnie Langford. Direction was by Trevor Nunn with choreography by Gillian Lynne. The show ran for 21 years. Umoja, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Blue Man Group and Gone with the Wind have subsequently played at the theatre which was previously home to the National Theatre’s record-breaking production of War Horse. The theatre is currently host to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock the Musical.
Nell Gwynne, mistress of Charles II, was associated with the tavern here which by the end of the 17th century was called the Great Mogul. In the early 18th century it was a meeting place for Glee Clubs and ‘sing-songs’ were held in the adjoining hall.
The Mogul Saloon was built in 1847 and, over the next four years, was renamed the Turkish Saloon and the Mogul Music Hall before finally settling on the name The Middlesex Music Hall in 1851. Operating under this name reconstruction work took place to house larger audiences in both 1872 and 1892.
In 1911 a completely new building was erected under the auspices of Oswald Stoll and renamed the New Middlesex Theatre of Varieties. This building was acquired by George Grossmith and Edward Laurillard in 1919, the interior was completely redecorated and the building given another new name – The Winter Garden.
The first production under the new name was the Jerome Kern musical Sally (1921) followed by The Cabaret Girl (1922), again by Kern and a Kern hat trick with The Beauty Prize (1923). Other major musical productions of note were The Vagabond King (1927), Fred and Adele Astaire in Funny Face (1929), Sophie Tucker in Follow a Star (1930) by Vivian Ellis, Gracie Fields in Walk This Way (1932) and The Water Gypsies by by Vivian Ellis and A P Herbert (1956).
The Winter Garden also achieved considerable success with a number of plays including Lewis Casson in George Bernard Shaw’s On the Rocks (1933), Love on the Dole (1935) starring Wendy Hiller, a Donald Wolfit season (1945), Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1953), Hotel Paradiso (1956) starring Alec Guinness, Douglas Byng, Irene Worth and featuring Billie Whitelaw as a maid, Tyrone Power in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (1956) and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1958).
In 1959 the theatre closed when the Rank Organisation sold it to a property developer. The Winter Garden was stripped and stood idle for many years whilst different plans for the site came and went. Eventually, it was demolished and the replacement building as it stands today consists of an underground car park, a cabaret venue, the theatre, a basement nightclub/bar, several shops and a residential tower.
The theatre’s auditorium first opened in 1972, under the supervision of Bernard Delfont, with a television recording of Marlene Dietrich’s one-woman show. The official theatrical opening was in January 1973 with The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, written by and starring Peter Ustinov and featuring his daughter Tamara Ustinov and Brian Bedford; Grease followed with Richard Gere as Danny Zuko and a young Elaine Paige in the cast. Sheila Hancock and George Cole starred in the revue Deja Revue (1974) directed by Victor Spinetti, followed by a successful run of Bruce Forsyth with his one-man show (1975), and various short seasons including Kwazulu, Africa’s Musical Explosion (1975) and John Hanson in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night (1975).
Between 1977 and 80 the auditorium of the Gillian Lynne Theatre (then New London) was used very successfully as a television studio, including early broadcasts of championship snooker and broadcasts of This is Your Life. The whole building was also occasionally put to use as a conference centre as had been intended in the building’s revolutionary design. The building returned to full-time operation as a theatre with the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats starring Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep, Paul Nicholas, Sarah Brightman and Bonnie Langford. Directed by Trevor Nunn with choreography by Gillian Lynne, the show was co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh using all of the technology that the innovative building provided including the revolving auditorium. In 1991 the building was purchased by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and, in turn, the year 2000 saw it become part of LW Theatres (formerly named Really Useful Theatres until July 2018) when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bridgepoint Capital purchased Stoll Moss Theatres.
January 2002 saw the announcement that Cats, the longest-running musical in West End and Broadway history, was to close. The show ended the first of its nine lives, on its 21st birthday, 11 May 2002. The final performance was also broadcast on a large screen in the Covent Garden Piazza. Prior to the opening of Umoja – The Spirit of Togetherness (2002, transferred from Queen’s), the building underwent an extensive programme of work to reinstate the original stage machinery and auditorium features which made it so versatile that on its opening in 1976 it was hailed as ‘Europe’s revolutionary new entertainment venue’. Given the opportunity of designing a ‘theatre for the future’, the architects (Paul Tvrtkovic in association with Sean Kenny, famous for his original Oliver! set, Chew and Percival) incorporated many revolutionary features, notably the stunning 60’-wide revolve which includes the stage, orchestra pit and part of the seating which was used to such great effect in Cats.
The 21st century productions have been Bill Kenwright’s new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2003) starring Stephen Gately, The Blue Man Group (2005) who brought a whole new theatrical experience to London, Ian McKellen led the RSC ensemble casts of King Lear and The Seagull (2007) and short runs for the new musicals Gone With the Wind (2008) and Imagine This (2008). The National Theatre’s award-winning stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse transferred to the theatre in 2009 and played to packed houses for over eight years.
Since December 2005 the Gillian Lynne Theatre has been owned 100% by The Really Useful Group Limited. Now it is home to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit Broadway musical School of Rock which opened in October 2016. In May 2018 the theatre, formerly New London, was re-named to celebrate the life and work of celebrated director and choreographer Gillian Lynne who sadly passed away later that year.