Monday, January 12, 2009

Tom O'Horgan: 1926-2009

Director Tom O'Horgan died this weekend in Florida. Ralph, Catherine and I had the good fortune to hear Tom speak a few times in La MaMa's Coffeehouse Chronicles while we were developing our performance events celebrating Off-Off Broadway; we were also introduced to him a couple of times but he was so greatly afflicted by Alzheimer's disease that he could never remember us. Remarkably, though, he could still remember quite a few details about his early work in the '60s and '70s.

For those who may not be familiar with Tom, he is best known for having directed the original Broadway productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. He began his career Off-Off Broadway at the Caffe Cino and other venues in the 1960s before being tapped by Ellen Stewart to lead the La MaMa Troupe in 1966; it was his work with this company, on such productions as Rochelle Owens' Futz and Paul Foster's Tom Paine, that led to his being chosen to direct Hair. His film direction credits include the adaptation of Futz and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

There's one particular anecdote that we heard from several of Tom's friends while researching for our project. In his youth, Tom earned his living playing the harp at tony restaurants around the city (it was actually through music that he came to theater: as a composer for early Off-Off productions). A harp being a very large instrument—too large for the subway or even the Checker cabs of the day—the case for Tom's had wheels attached to the bottom. Virtually everyone we interviewed remembers some evening when they were walking through the Village and received a cheerful wave from Tom as he passed pushing his harp case down the street on the way to or from a gig. I like to think that it says something about the kind of person Tom was that that's what I thought of first when I heard of his passing.

Photo: Tom O'Horgan in the film version of Futz (1969). Photo courtesy Robert Patrick.

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