Guest Blog: Lorrie Davis on Tom O’Horgan
In celebration of the release of Divine Hair/Mass in F, Lorrie Davis from the original Broadway cast of Hair shares some memories about the show’s director Tom O’Horgan.
Lorrie Davis on Tom O’Horgan
The first time I met Tom O’Horgan, I was auditioning for the original cast of the Broadway musical Hair. He was sitting on the floor of a dingy room at Variety Arts Rehearsal Studios in New York City, along with the authors and the producer. I thought these people were strange.
Although his hair was long, Tom O’Horgan never tried to convince us that he was a hippie. He didn’t wear designer outfits or raggedy clothes. He didn’t exhibit outrageous behavior, get high or recite mantras. We all understood he believed in peace, love, liberation and equality because he led by example. Tom O’Horgan was always calm, soft spoken and quiet even when everyone else was speeding around.
Although he had plenty of reasons to do so (cast members were known not to show up, or arrived late, were high or unprepared), I don’t remember him ever getting angry or upset with us. On the rare occasions when he raised his voice, he would then look up skyward and chuckle. From the beginning Tom O’Horgan stood out as a class act. He was a dignified gentleman who could take over a bunch of unruly cast members by just entering the room. Everyone respected him.
Tom was a proponent of experimental theater. So it wasn’t unusual for us to be doing one of his exercises instead of working on the script. Most of the cast consisted of inexperienced, vulnerable, innocent young people who could be molded into the cast he wanted. Tom always told us he didn’t want actors. His work was cut out for him. The cast that had been assembled came from different economic and education levels, ethnic backgrounds and temperaments. Not only did we not understand each other but we also often didn’t even like each other. Many of the cast members, myself included, didn’t know what a hippie was. What Tom did was to take this ragtag group of inexperienced young people from different social and ethnic backgrounds and turn them into an ensemble never seen before on Broadway. He wanted us to live at the theater and often said that if it hadn’t been for Equity regulations he would have had the cast eat, drink, sleep, socialize, and live in the theater day and night, so that we would become more in tune with each other. Some of the cast members actually did spend some nights at the theater.
The genius of Tom O’Horgan made the audiences and the critic think we were just people who’d just walked off the street into the theater and onto the stage to do the show. That’s what he wanted. He often said this (was) WILL be the first time the character would become the actor instead of the actor becoming the character. He had the ability to understand what each member of the cast could contribute, take what he wanted from them and put it on the stage.
During rehearsal whenever someone had an idea, Tom was always ready to listen to it although he often rejected it. The author Gerry Ragni always had ideas, and would interrupt the rehearsals several times a day. Tom was always very patient with him One day during a break Gerry gave me “The Gettysburg Address” and said “what can you do with this?” It took me a few minutes to put together a group that included Ronnie Dyson, Lamont Washington, Donnie Burks and Natalie Mosco. I gave them the doo wop background, showed them what steps to do and (we) I created the “Abie Baby” scene that was one of the highlights of the show. Gerry thought it was great and held up the rehearsal so we could show it to Tom. I was flattered that Tom thought it was good enough to put in the show exactly the way I did it. A lot of material was contributed to the show by the very talented unsuspecting cast. But they never blamed Tom O’Horgan for not even getting a thank you. They blamed the “hippie” authors who put the material in their script as if they’d written it. So much for honesty!
Working with Tom O’Horgan was fun, educational and gratifying. By the time the show opened on Broadway we knew he was the genius that made Hair the great show it was. Tom O’Horgan never got the credit due him for directing it.
No, he didn’t write the script or music. No, he didn’t create the choreography. Nor was he a cast member. But like the master artist he was, he put all the right ingredients together to fashion one of the most unforgettable shows to ever come to Broadway.
It was his brilliant sense of direction that brought the entire production together. His insight into people, his exercises and skills made the cast look like they’d just come from a be-in and decided to stop by the theater and put on a show.
At the 1969 Tony Awards, Hair got Best Musical and Best Director nominations. However, the handwriting was on the wall when composer Galt MacDermot was not even mentioned. I guess a Broadway show with fresh, new, innovative ideas and full of young people was too much for the pundits at the time. We thought those people must have been on drugs. None of us expected to win. And the cast talked about not going. But we went. We wanted Tom to win not only because he deserved it but because he was the heart and soul of Hair. That year, 1776 won the Tony for Best Musical… to no one’s surprise!
Those of us who were lucky enough to know him and work with him had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He was a gifted, brilliant director who was way ahead of his time.
Over the years, we kept in touch and he was never too busy to talk to me and encourage me to complete my projects. When I told him of one, he would say “Finish it” or “Let’s Do It.” I will always regret not finishing a project we could work on together before he left us. But one thing I’ve learned from him is that you can do the conventional things or, as he often said, you can “go for it.”
We were all blessed to have Tom O’Horgan in our lives.
[Lorrie Davis created the role of Abe Lincoln in the Broadway production of Hair; she wrote a book, Letting Down My Hair – The Backstage Story, about the two years she spent as a member of the cast, with an introduction by Tom O’Horgan; she has just finished writing the book and lyrics for a new musical, The Hair Diary, which is dedicated to Tom O’Horgan.]