Tom O’Horgan was a multitalented director, musician, and choreographer who worked on dozens of shows at La MaMa before hitting the bigtime as the director of the Broadway musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, though he continued to return to La MaMa after his mainstream success.
The Judson Poets’ Theatre show Gorilla Queen was a bawdy, campy, satirical riff on old B movies that featured two members of the Harris family: George Harris, Jr. and his son, a pre-Hibiscus George Harris III. “I met the Harris family at Judson,” Agosto Machado recalled. “I feel very blessed to have met them. There was so much love with that family, and the parents were so nurturing.” Jayne Anne Harris appeared in the Judson production Sing Ho for a Bear, an adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh with music by Al Carmines, and she also did a few Happenings there. “There was nudity,” she said, “there were people running around, there was all kinds of stuff going on.” One Happening involved a red team and a blue team that performed different dances to the Righteous Brothers song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as a man roller-skated by in a yellow dress. Walter Michael Harris also performed in a Happening that was organized by director Tom O’Horgan. “The whole point of that Happening was to have what Tom called a kinetic sculpture,” he said, “or human sculpture with music and other stuff.” O’Horgan collected musical instruments from around the world, and he gave Walter some Tibetan chimes for him to play as he walked around in a funny hat; the two would later work together in the 1968 Broadway debut of Hair, which O’Horgan directed. “Once we did an Easter sunrise morning Happening in Washington Square Park,” Kornfeld recalled. “During the middle of it, Andy Warhol arrived and he drove into the park in a white limousine. He drove right into the center to upstage it, so we embraced it. It was all part of camping, making an entrance.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the mid-1960s, musician and director Tom O’Horgan had become part of the La MaMa family. “Tom came into the Cino,” playwright Robert Patrick recalled, “moping and sulking that his life was over and he wasn’t getting anywhere, and that he was a woebegone, middle-aged gay musician. Then Joe Cino said, ‘Here, you can have the floor.’ Tom did two rather conventional nightclub-type reviews with eccentric touches. After Paul Foster saw that, he brought him to La MaMa, where Ellen supported him.” He eventually directed some sixty plays at Stewart’s theater and had even greater success directing the Broadway debuts of Hair in 1968 and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. Much earlier, in 1964, O’Horgan had directed an important production of The Maids, the first to cast men in the two pivotal female roles (as playwright Jean Genet intended). “I played the Madame,” said Mari-Claire Charba, who was also cast in The Maids. “We presented it at La MaMa, and it was a big success. That was the beginning of his directing career, because before that he was really a composer and a musician.” Charba’s earliest memory of O’Horgan was at a Happening he orchestrated at Judson Church. “He did this thing where everybody was inside the Judson,” she said, “and then they all came out onto Fourth Street where all these drag queens were.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“We were doing all these exercises that became the epitome of that performance style of Hair,” Marie-Claire Charba said. “Tom shifted Broadway into all this physicality, and we were precursors to that. Like Hamilton, we did that with Tom Paine. When I saw Hamilton, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that was like Tom Paine,’ which was done—what, fifty years ago? Same thing. Tom O’Horgan took a historical play and moved it into mixed media.” The busy director was simultaneously working on Tom Paine at La MaMa while running the first rehearsal workshops for Hair in early 1968. “There was a lot of crossing of inspirational ideas with those two plays,” La MaMa playwright Paul Foster said, recalling one moment in Tom Paine that was absorbed into Hair. Foster had a scene in which the people of France were starving in order to feed the Termite Queen, who attacked the hungry mob and began eating the clothes off their back. “No, don’t stop, just keep going,” O’Horgan said during a rehearsal, so the performers kept tearing off their clothes until they were naked. “These were young kids and they didn’t have any qualms about getting naked,” Foster recalled. “It was a powerful moment in the show, and it rose out of a need to say something visually.” Two weeks later, Hair featured a similar nude scene when it debuted at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Café La MaMa’s secret weapon was Tom O’Horgan: a multitalented director, musician, and choreographer who worked on dozens of shows at Ellen Stewart’s theater. A musician with no traditional theatrical training, he had worked throughout the 1950s as an offbeat variety entertainer, cracking jokes while playing early English ballads on the harp—even appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. “He was ambidextrous when it came to his playing, whatever he thought the piece needed,” playwright Paul Foster recalled. “It added a whole new dimension to theater.” O’Horgan merged music, gesture, and dialogue by using performers’ bodies to create what he called kinetic sculptures. One exemplar of this approach was Foster’s Tom Paine, a “living play” that seamlessly integrated the auditioning, casting, rehearsing, and script development processes into an organic whole. To master this new theatrical style, all fifteen members of the La MaMa troupe attended five-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week workshops that included music making, movement exercises, and dialogue. “There were people fiddling around with theater form,” Robert Patrick said, “and so Tom O’Horgan and Paul Foster and the La MaMa troupe put it all together into a workshop method that developed the idea of collaborative creation in theater.” O’Horgan’s performers might come out wearing drapery—chanting and moving about—then suddenly swirl and shift into a scene that was developed from another overlapping theme. “Sometimes,” Foster noted, “you just wanted to emphasize the texture, and you’re willing to lose comprehension.”
Sixteen-year-old Walter Michael Harris was the youngest cast member in the Broadway version, though he hadn’t appeared in the previous Off-Broadway productions. He had seen the show when it played at the midtown disco the Cheetah—a transitional production that split the difference between its more stilted debut at the Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and the explosive Broadway version. Hair was constantly evolving in the lead‑up to its Broadway debut. Show creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni continued working on the script and songs at the same time Tom O’Horgan held auditions, which is how Harris got involved. When he accompanied a friend on piano during Hair’s open auditions, O’Horgan asked him if he wanted to try out. “Well, if you’re involved, Tom, then yes!” Harris had previously worked with the director as both an actor and musician in Foster’s Madonna in the Orchard, and also participated in a Happening that O’Horgan orchestrated at Judson Church. The Hair cast rehearsed at the Ukrainian Hall, one of the many old ballrooms located on Second Avenue. “Tom was kind, very self-effacing, not at all dictatorial as a director,” Harris recalled. “He could get tough when he needed to, but that was very rare. He was just a very soft-spoken conductor.” The word conductor was appropriate, for O’Horgan visualized scenes in musical terms—much like a flow of a symphony or a jazz composition. “I always said Tom directed the cast like they were an orchestra of flesh,” recalled Patrick. “His work was much more akin to dance and music than to what had been thought of as theater before.”