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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable