Tom O'Horgan: Award-winning, visionary director who brought 'Hair' to Broadway

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The Independent Online

The director, actor, musician and composer Tom O'Horgan brought a new excitement and free-wheeling style to Broadway in 1968 when he directed the ground-breaking production Hair, Broadway's first true rock musical.

The show had already been an Off-Broadway hit, but O'Horgan drastically reshaped it, and introduced a sequence in which the cast appeared naked. Its anti-establishment mix of protest and profanity and its dissection of attitudes to race, homosexuality, drugs, sex and in particular the Vietnam War, caught the mood of the time, and its score, which included "Aquarius" and "Good Morning, Starshine", became a best-selling album.

O'Horgan's staging had members of the cast mingling with the audience, and its wild moments included a member of the cast swinging over the heads of the audience, Tarzan-style. There was also some dazzling satire and flamboyant use of costume.

In The New York Times, the critic Clive Barnes praised the show's "radiant freshness... It seems as though the whole thing is swiftly, deftly, and dazzlingly being improvised before your eyes."

Hair won a Tony nomination for O'Horgan. He also directed the American premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Webber-Rice musical that started life as an album, and which O'Horgan was billed as having "conceived for the stage".

O'Horgan was named Theatrical Director of the Year by Newsweek in 1968, and by the end of 1971 – the peak of his career commercially – he had four shows running in New York, with Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar joined by the revue Inner City and Julian Barry's play Lenny, starring Cliff Gorman as the foul-mouthed comedian-satirist Lenny Bruce.

O'Horgan won three Drama Desk awards for his off-Broadway work, including Rochelle Owens's sexual satire Futz! (1969), about a young farmer who, after bad experiences with women, marries his pet pig. He directed a screen version of the play, for which he also wrote the score, but it was not successful.

O'Horgan also composed the music for Alex in Wonderland (1970), Paul Mazursky's film about a director dealing with writer's block, and directed a film of Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros (1974) starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Karen Black. In 1978 he conceived and directed a stage version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

O'Horgan was born in 1924 in Chicago, where his father, who owned a local newspaper, encouraged his son's interest in the theatre, building him footlights and a wind machine. O'Horgan sang in the church choir and at the age of 12 wrote an opera, Doom of the Earth. He became adept with many musical instruments while studying at DePaul University in Chicago, specialising in the harp, which he played with various orchestras and with Second City, the Chicago improvisatory group.

He moved to New York to pursue an acting career, and appeared in nightclubs with an off-beat turn as a harpist who sang and performed improvisational humour. When the famed La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club asked him to direct Jean Genet's The Maids, he decided to follow the playwright's wishes by casting men in the three female roles. He was to become one of the group's prime talents: by 1968 he had directed more than 50 shows, films and "happenings" for La MaMa. An advocate of the "strolling player" concept, he stated his wish to see the theatre move towards "the Greek and Renaissance concept of actor/musician/dancer" and he described his work as "kinetic sculpture".

Although Hair was described as "the American tribal love-rock musical", O'Horgan declared that he was never a part of the "hippie" generation. "I was older, I came more from the beat generation. If you put a pistol to my head and forced me to sing 'Good Morning, Starshine', I wouldn't be able to do it, and I was there when they made some of those songs up on the spur of the moment."

Hair had originated as a small-scale production at Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre in New York, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and music by Galt MacDermott. Directed by Gerald Freedman, its loosely structured book featured a long-haired hippie rebel who considers burning his draft card, but finally goes to Vietnam and is killed, leaving his friends to mourn his senseless death. Besides adding the nude scene, O'Horgan revised the book and recast the show for Broadway, paring the story down to a minimum, adding songs, and strengthening its social comment.

During previews, it was predicted that too many theatregoers would be offended by the show for it to run, and it opened to mixed reviews. Some, however, hailed it as heralding a new freedom, and virtually all praised the score. Three members of the Critics' Circle – Clive Barnes, Henry Hewes and Emory Lewis – voted it the best musical of the year. The show ran for nearly two thousand performances, with those in the orchestra seats cajoled nightly into going on stage and joining the dancing cast at the show's end. Within a year, 23 companies were performing Hair in 10 countries. It was decided that the London production should wait until September 1968, when the Lord Chamberlain's power to censor plays was abolished. When Hair did open at the Shaftesbury Theatre, it was an immediate hit.

O'Horgan later said that after the success of Hair he felt shut out by Broadway. A second musical with a score by McDermott, Dude (1972), was a short-lived failure, and O'Horgan's attempt to turn Sgt Pepper into an electronic pop-art spectacle also failed. He directed a revival of Rudolph Friml's 1928 operetta The Three Musketeers (1984), which ran for one week, and his Senator Joe (1989), a pop-opera about Joseph McCarthy, closed after one preview performance.

He remained busy, however, working on smaller projects and was able to buy a huge loft studio in downtown Manhattan, where he amassed an enormous collection of exotic musical instruments. But in 2007 his friend and former lover Marc Cohen, who had power of attorney due to O'Horgan's Alzheimer's Disease, sold the loft and auctioned O'Horgan's instruments and memorabilia in order to provide money for full-time care and a move to Florida.

A new production of Hair is due to open on Broadway in the spring, directed by Diane Paulus. "Tom O'Horgan was a legend," said Paulus. "I read about his work on Hair with awe. He was a total visionary."

Tom O'Horgan, director, writer and composer: born Chicago 3 May 1926; died Venice, Florida 11 January 2009.