Tom O'Horgan, Groundbreaking Director of Superstar, Hair and More, Has Died

News   Tom O'Horgan, Groundbreaking Director of Superstar, Hair and More, Has Died
Tom O'Horgan, the Drama Desk Award-winning, Tony-nominated director who brought a downtown ethic to his Broadway projects, including the original Broadway productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, died in his sleep Jan. 11 at his home in Venice, FL, his caregivers Marc and Julia Cohen announced.
Tom O'Horgan
Tom O'Horgan Photo by Aubrey Reuben

He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years. He was 84 years old.

Mr. O'Horgan was a composer, singer, actor, director and musician who directed many productions for Café La Mama, the downtown Manhattan institution that embraced experimental and non-commercial works. In his Playbill bio for the original Broadway run of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he directed and "conceived for the stage," he said he "was able to blend all aspects of the theatre without letting any part become secondary to the others." In directing Off-Broadway's Tom Paine and Futz!, he "was also able to approach the direction he would like to see the theatre head towards — the Greek and Renaissance concept of actor/musician/dancer."

Broadway experienced his mission when he directed Hair, "the American tribal love rock musical," which landed on The Great White Way with a major splash in April 1968. His Broadway production of Hair was a revised version of the musical by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, following the groundbreaking show's 1967 bow at The Public Theater.

Mr. O'Horgan won Drama Desk Awards as Outstanding Director for 1971's Lenny (for which he also composed music) and 1969's Futz! (he also directed and composed the score of its film version).

In 1969 he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Hair. In 1968 he took home the Drama Desk's Vernon Rice-Drama Desk Award for his direction of Paul Foster's Tom Paine, which was conceived for the La Mama troupe.

In the early 1970s Mr. O'Horgan was a major name on Broadway, challenging the establishment and making money for it at the same time. At one point, he had four Broadway projects on the boards: He was director of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lenny and Inner City. His other Broadway directing credits, according to Internet Broadway Database, include the musical Dude, the plays The Leaf People and I Won't Dance, the revival of the Friml musical The Three Musketeers (1984) and a project called Senator Joe, a 1989 musical about Sen. Joseph McCarthy (for which he wrote the music) that never officially opened.

Mr. O'Horgan also directed the film version of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Karen Black.

Even after his commercial heyday, Mr. O'Horgan reportedly directed readings Off-Off-Broadway, or hosted workshops and concerts in his spacious loft.

The New York Times reported in 2007 that he left New York City — and his 840 Broadway loft, site of many a salon and starry party — for good. His health was declining. The paper reported that he said he saw The Public Theater's 2007 concert of Hair at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, but that he didn't remember it. That production, which he was not associated with, returned to the park in 2008 and is moving to Broadway this spring.

Diane Paulus, director of the new Hair, told, "The first time I encountered Tom O'Horgan's work was the 1991 revival of Rochelle Owens' Futz at La Mama. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be in the presence of this man's work. Tom O'Horgan was a legend. I had read with awe about his work on Hair He was a total visionary, and his productions were ground breaking."

Perry Kroeger, an actor in Mr. O'Horgan's 1977 revival of Hair told the Times in 2007 that the director "was waiting patiently for [New York City theatre] to return to its normal state," seemingly, a state where experimentation was embraced, and homogeneity rejected.

Ben Vereen, who starred in Mr. O'Horgan's Hair and Superstar, said in 2007 that shows like Spring Awakening were possible because of the ground that Mr. O'Horgan broke.

Vereen told the Times, "I see a show like Spring Awakening, and I say, 'Oh, that's Tom O'Horgan,' but no one stands up and says 'thank you.'"

Mr. Vereen is expected to be part of the celebration of Mr. O'Horgan's life later this year.

A Chicago native, Mr. O'Horgan received numerous honors in recent years including an Honorary Doctorate from De Paul University and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Innovative Theater Awards.

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