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Tom O’Horgan

Tom O’Horgan

Composer, conceptual performance artist, musician, and stage and film director Tom O’Horgan (b. Chicago, IL, 3 May 1924; d. Venice, FL, 11 January 2009) is best remembered for the extraordinary excitement and success of his direction of the 1968 Broadway musical Hair. Although the public appeal of his subsequent Broadway productions – Lenny, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Inner City among others – diminished dramatically until his last show, Senator Joe, never even actually opened, O’Horgan had already left an ineradicable mark on the American theatre through his work with the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the 1960s.

Tom O’Horgan’s father, a thwarted singer turned newspaper owner, shared his passion for the theatre with his only son to such a degree that when the child first went to school, he asked to see the theatrical facilities and judged them inadequate. The elder O’Horgan supplied footlights and a wind machine. Young Tom sang in church and at the age of twelve wrote his first opera, The Doom of the Earth.

With a degree from DePaul University, he lived for the first half of his life as a musician. He played harp, piano, and dozens of other instruments of all kinds – and played them well –, even performed with the Chicago Civic Opera. He had a thorough knowledge of ballet, and worked often with the Chicago improvisatory group Second City and its original director Paul Sills. As a sort of sit-down-comic-harpist-improviser, he developed a club act and ultimately took his routine to Greenwich Village in New York, where he hooked up with other off-beat performers and actors. He composed music for Shakespeare’s Tempest in 1959 and for several Off-Broadway productions in the early ’60s, and in 1963 stage-directed the experimental Love and Vexations Off-Off-Broadway at the Caffé Cino.

In 1964 Ellen Stewart, founder and patron of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, eager to tap into his experience with Second City, asked O’Horgan to direct Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which (according to the playwright’s instructions) the three female roles were played by men. La MaMa’s schedule was a grueling one – four performances of a brand-new play each week – but it suited the energetic O’Horgan perfectly, and by the time four years were up, he had directed over sixty shows, films, and happenings with the group. Some of his more outstanding productions were early plays by Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Fernando Arrabal, and the Drama Desk Award-winning Tom Paine by Paul Foster.

Tom O’Horgan became La MaMa’s first artistic director in 1965 and led their first international troupe on a tour to Copenhagen for six weeks. Their enormous success in Denmark was a revelation. They returned for three months in 1966 and for six in 1967. The language barrier may have turned out to reinforce O’Horgan’s natural directorial inclinations, for he liked “to fill the stage with lots of things to look at.” He was interested in the totality of theatre, but principally in its “kinetic” elements; people are, he said, “hung up … because they insist that the one-dimensional, verbal Ibsenite theater is the only theater. But … if the ideas are the primary thing, it’s not theater. Theater has always meant music, dance, art. That’s what the Greek theater was.”

As a means to develop “the Greek and Renaissance concept of actor/musician/dancer,” he and Stewart created their own actors’ workshop geared specifically toward La MaMa’s new style of experimental performance. In place of “the Method” – the soul-scanning “emotion memory” acting technique inherited from the late nineteenth-century Russian school – the O’Horgan/Stewart school focused on external “kinetic” exercises: voice, movement, ensemble, improvisation, range of expression. All these elements were to have an explosive effect on Broadway in 1968, when Hair moved uptown under O’Horgan’s direction.

One of O’Horgan’s many projects with La MaMa is worthy of special remark: in 1967 he staged a play by Rochelle Owens called Futz! A satire on social and sexual mores, it concerned a hillbilly farm boy named Cyrus Futz who has had such discouraging experiences with women that he falls in love with and marries his pet sow. The director won a Drama Desk Award for the show in 1968, toured with it to the Edinburgh Festival, ran it Off-Broadway at the Theatre de Lys for some weeks, and filmed it, essentially unchanged from the stage version, in California in 1969. The movie, in spite of the catchy, folksy music he wrote for it, was anything but successful.

However, two members of Futz!’s audience at La MaMa had been particularly impressed; they were James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who were writing the musical Hair. Originally directed in 1967 by Gerald Freedman (only because O’Horgan was in Scotland at the moment), Hair was enough of a hit Off-Broadway at Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre for the authors and the composer, Galt MacDermott, to consider moving it to Broadway. O’Horgan was called in to oversee the transition, and ended up overhauling the show entirely: what had already been a fairly loose plot (Claude gets drafted and goes to Vietnam and gets killed) was diluted further in the interest of “total theater”; thirteen new songs were added, extended segments of improvisation and interaction with the audience were thrown in, the cast did cartwheels and took off their clothes. What emerged was a stimulating psychedelic mixture of profanity, protest, and parody on race, war, patriotism, homosexuality, drugs, religion, and sex in contemporary society. And there were lots of things on stage to look at. Critic Michael Smith proclaimed in the Village Voice that O’Horgan had “blown up Broadway.”

Running for 1,752 performances, Hair brought O’Horgan a Tony® nomination. Newsweek named him Theatrical Director of the Year. But sensational success could not help but have an impact upon his relationship with La MaMa. He began to be courted by producers and to spend more time on other projects; the following year, Ellen Stewart and Tom O’Horgan parted ways.

Hair was to run until the summer of 1972; meanwhile O’Horgan directed a “straight” play on Broadway with incidental music by himself, Julian Barry’s Lenny. It opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in May 1971, right across the street from where Hair was running. Cliff Gorman played the foul-mouthed satirist and comedian Lenny Bruce, and won a Tony® for his performance. O’Horgan won the 1971 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director, and the play ran for 453 performances.

Less than five months later the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which had begun its life as a record album and was supposedly “conceived for the stage” by Tom O’Horgan (actually it had been staged many times by schools and amateurs), opened in a nearby Broadway theatre. The Drama Desk Awards dubbed Lloyd Webber 1972’s Most Promising Composer and Ben Vereen won the Theatre World Award as Judas Iscariot. It ran for 711 performances and received a handful of Tony® nominations, but none for director O’Horgan.

Next was Inner City, opening (December 1971) little more than two months after Jesus Christ Superstar. Conceived as a musical, produced, and directed by O’Horgan, the show was inspired by Eve Merriam’s little 1969 book of incendiary verse, The Inner City Mother Goose. It was short on plot, but packed with action, atmosphere, and character. Outstanding among the motley ensemble was Blues singer Linda Hopkins, who won both a Tony® and a Drama Desk Award for her performance, notably of “Deep in the Night,” a song that continued to grow in popularity even after the show’s 97 performances were but a dim memory.

Tom O’Horgan’s career was at its peak while in early 1972 he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously, but soon it would be pitched into decline. Another musical by Hair composer Galt MacDermot and author Gerome Ragni, Dude (1972), lasted for only 16 performances; a serious play at Papp’s theatre, The Leaf People (1975), depicting the first contact between white men and a hostile tribe of Amazonian Indians, enjoyed only eight. Even revivals of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1977 (43 and 96 performances respectively) did not get far off the launching pad. In 1978 O’Horgan conceived and directed a Pop-art extravaganza, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, that did little more than offend Beatles fans. On Broadway, a murder mystery, I Won’t Dance (1981), and an operetta version of The Three Musketeers (1984) did even worse.

O’Horgan felt he had been put on an “enemies list,” that the critics and other powers on Broadway had deliberately shut him out after the runaway success of Hair. After directing Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Karen Black in a film of Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros in 1974, he kept busy on less ambitious projects (directing Birdbath Off-Broadway in 1982; Masked Men at the Westbeth Theatre in 1993).

But the flamboyant Tom O’Horgan never really left the public eye: from the early 1970’s he lived in a 2,600-square-foot loft near Union Square that was the stage for concerts, readings, parties, and happenings attended by all manner of artistic celebrities – Leonard Bernstein, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Beverly Sills. His collection of theatrical posters and memorabilia covered the walls; awards, innumerable tchotchkes, and books of all kinds crowded the shelves; and all were overwhelmed by his eclectic accumulation of musical instruments: harps, drums, flutes, gongs, horns, cymbals, all arranged in order of their antiquity or ethnic origin. New Year’s Eve was celebrated annually by everyone present taking an instrument and making as much joyful noise on it as possible.

O’Horgan began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2002, and by 2007 was deeply in debt and unable to care for himself. Under the supervision of friends Marc and Julia Cohen, he sold his loft and held a massive tag sale to divest himself of his collections, moving to Venice, Florida, where he died at 84 in January 2009. His ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay, where the ashes of Harvey Milk had been scattered in 1978, and of Galen McKinley (stage manager for Jesus Christ Superstar and the revival of Hair) in 1980.

In addition to his three Drama Desk Awards, Tom O’Horgan had received the Obie Award for Best Off-Off-Broadway Director of 1967, and the 1968 Brandeis Award for Creative Arts. In 2006 his friends and fellow artists of the New York Innovative Theatre presented him with an Artistic Achievement Award “in recognition of his significant artistic contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway community.” In his acceptance speech, O’Horgan admitted, “I’m in love with this whole game.”

– Lucy E. Cross