840 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
Tom O'Horgan (May 3, 1924 – January 11, 2009) was an American theatre and film director, composer, actor and musician. He is best known for his Broadway work as director of the hit musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. During his career he sought to achieve a form of "total theater" described by The New York Times as "wittily physical", and which earned him a reputation as the "Busby Berkeley of the acid set".
Born in Chicago, Illinois, O'Horgan was introduced to theater by his father, a newspaper owner and sometimes actor, who took him to shows and built him footlights and a wind machine. As a child he sang in churches and wrote operas, including one entitled Doom of the Earth at age 12. O'Horgan received his degree from DePaul University where he learned to play dozens of musical instruments. After graduating he worked in Chicago as a harpist and also performed with the Second City, the Chicago improvisational theater company. He moved to New York City and began acting downtown at places like Judson Memorial Church. During this time he developed a night club act where he performed improvisational humor as he accompanied himself on the harp.
O'Horgan thought of his work as "kinetic sculpture" and said that his goal was to be "able to blend all aspects of the theatre without letting any part become secondary to the others". Of contemporary commercial theater, he believed that people are "hung up on chandeliers because they insist that the one-dimensional, verbal Ibsenite theater is the only theater. But this is an aberration of the 19th century. 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." Shortly after Hair opened on Broadway, Eleanore Lester wrote in The New York Times: "O'Horgan, a veteran of many years of experimentation and frustration in his search for The Way in theater, successfully incorporates a number of strands coming on strong in the rapidly evolving post-Miller-Williams-Albee and post-absurdist theater. Those trends, growing partly out of the intimate Off Off Broadway movement and partly out of the visceral political drama of be-ins, sit-ins and demonstrations, include the use of improvisational techniques, vigorous ensemble playing, a more physical style of acting, greater use of dance, music, and puppets, and Pop-camp comedy – plus the Total Theater concept in which the audience becomes more closely involved in the work." O'Horgan said that an element of his artistic gratification is "just getting the vicarious joy of turning people on, making them respond, turning them on to their own sensual powers that are buried under layers of cement. When you see how people in the streets will run to see a fire or an accident or a fight, hoping against hope to see something really happen, something that will prove that the people walking beside them are more than mere mannequins, you realize how much they want to break out of all their emotional rigidity." Though he would become well known for his Broadway work, he was more comfortable in the Off-Broadway world. As he told Lester in 1968, "Sure, I've been sent scripts from Broadway offices, but so far I haven't seen anything that I could possibly be interested in. Of course, I'll continue working with La MaMa. Where else can you work things out? Certainly not on Broadway where the meter is always running."
Most of his early career work was in Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre productions. One of his earliest projects was Love and Vexations at the Caffe Cino in September, 1963. Soon thereafter, his friend James Wigfall introduced him to Ellen Stewart (founder of La MaMa, E.T.C.), who would go on to become one of his staunchest supporters. The first play he directed there was The Maids by Jean Genet in 1964, and he later led a La MaMa troupe that went to Denmark to showcase early plays by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. He directed some 50 productions at La MaMa including The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria by Fernando Arrabal, a surrealist play about two men on an island, and Tom Paine by Paul Foster, a recounting of the life of the US Revolutionary War figure. O'Horgan directed and also composed music for the Rochelle Owens play Futz!. He first directed the play off-off-Broadway for La MaMa in March 1967 and later took it to the Edinburgh Festival and then to New York's Theater de Lys, an off-Broadway venue in June 1968. O'Horgan also directed a film version of Futz! that was released in 1969. Futz! tells the story of the difficulties a farm boy encounters with the people of the town when he falls in love with his pig. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. O'Horgan ... has visualized Futz! as some kind of Dionysiac dance, wild and fevered. He sends his actors mugging and careening across the stage in great joyous surges of energy." Hair authors James Rado and Gerome Ragni attended the La MaMa production of Futz! and it influenced them to choose O'Horgan to direct Hair on Broadway. In November 1974, he conceived and directed a stage adaptation of The Beatles' classic recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The show, entitled Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, played at the Beacon Theater concert venue on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The production, developed in collaboration with Hair set designer Robin Wagner, featured 34 actors performing 29 Beatles songs with elaborate scenery, special effects and colorful costumes. The show was not well received by critics and closed in January 1975 after 66 performances. Among O'Horgan's other off-Broadway credits include the Second City revues at the Village East To the Water Tower, When the Owl Screams, and The Wrecking Ball as composer, as well as Masked Men (at the Westbeth Theatre) and Birdbath as director.
O'Horgan lived in a 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) loft in Manhattan at 840 Broadway (at 13th Street) that was famous for parties and events attended by artistic figures like Norman Mailer and Beverly Sills. The walls were covered with his impressive collection of unusual musical instruments from throughout the world. His loft was visited by children's television host Fred Rogers on a 1985 episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Many instruments were displayed in order of their history, from antique to current. There was also an alcove of gongs, including the one used in Jesus Christ Superstar. He and his friends rang in many a New Year there, where at midnight everyone would take an instrument off the wall, or find a drum or a gong, and celebrate with an abandon and joy that O'Horgan so often set the stage for (both personally and professionally). He also held the weddings of two close friends there. Martha Wingate married Hunt Taylor there in 1980, and Soni Moreno married Harry Primeau there a few years later. In his later years O'Horgan suffered from Alzheimer's disease. The disease began to show signs in 2002 and by 2007 he was deeply in debt and unable to care for himself. He came under the care of friends Marc and Julia Cohen, his loft and collections of instruments were sold, and he moved to Venice, Florida, where he died on January 11, 2009. A small group of close friends scattered his ashes in San Francisco Bay, where they had scattered the ashes of his lifelong friends Harvey Milk and Galen McKinley years before. Hair brought Milk to San Francisco. When O'Horgan hired boyfriend Galen "Jack" McKinley, whom Milk had poached from O'Horgan years earlier, to work on the San Francisco production of the Broadway smash in 1969, Milk went with him. His relationship with McKinley ended for good there, but Milk again fell in love with San Francisco.
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