Tom O’Horgan, 1924-2009


For most of his last four decades, the composer and stage director Tom O’Horgan, who died in Florida on January 11, occupied a rambling loft on the corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. The magic of the place is hard to convey. Because Tom was an accumulator, it was crammed full—first and foremost, full of the friends and colleagues with whom he always surrounded himself. Granting that most of my few visits there were for holiday parties or other special events, I never recall seeing fewer than a dozen people crowded into the space—more often, there were between 20 and 40, after which the lack of oxygen made guests begin to trickle away.

The happily engaged crowd always seemed a paradox, because Tom was a soft-spoken, low-key person; as with many musicians, words were not his readiest means of communication. With the clamor around him in full cry, he could seem downright introverted. But that could transform itself instantly: The place was full of strange and wonderful objects, the vast majority of which were musical instruments—of every known mode, genre, tradition, and culture—and you only needed to glance at an instrument to watch Tom come alive as if you had turned a magic key.

He knew everything about every object that made music—not only how to play it, but how it had evolved, what lore (mystical, historical, technical) came with it, and what colors or effects it could produce. By the time he admitted to you, diffidently, that he was less skillful at the virginals than at the celesta, or that his glass-harmonica playing was really not up to par, you would be utterly charmed, not to say hypnotized. The vast array of instruments stretched through the apartment like a panorama of musical history: The wall near the elevator held the enormous panoply of drums and gongs; across the room by the windows were the keyboards; the next room held a wall of woodwinds and one of brass instruments, each graduated in size, from piccolo and toy bugle up to contrabass clarinet and bombardon. Each specimen, you felt, had been chosen for its rarity and visual beauty as well as its position on the scale.

The non-musical objects, a melange of souvenirs, curios, and folk artifacts, were beyond description. And behind the objects stood the books, walls and walls of them. My only real opportunity to examine these came two years ago, when the loft was sold and its contents put up for sale, because Tom’s worsening Alzheimer’s compelled his move to a full-time-care facility in Florida. It was hard to find a subject on which Tom had not owned several volumes, each showing signs of a scholar’s thorough scrutiny and a bibliophile’s loving care. He had rows of plays and tomes on theater history, especially on medieval and Renaissance performance; vocal and orchestral scores of everything from Bach’s complete cantatas to the most complex 20th-century works. There was social history, language, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and every realm of visual art from Lascaux to Lichtenstein. I unearthed Broadway choreographer Ned Wayburn’s 1925 Art of Stage Dancing, sandwiched between a study of the Balinese ketiak and a history of the Ballets Russes.

I’ve lingered over this description of Tom’s loft because it also seems a perfect description of his mind. Comfortable, crowded, and infused with great knowledge and great feeling for human companionship, it was also a restless, provocative, disconcerting place, the home of someone who, while serenely accepting of life, also seemed to be deeply driven on an endless, wide-ranging quest.

And that very much sums up O’Horgan’s work. His career was an endless quest, and each of his innumerable productions a quest within it, perpetually restless yet serene in its contentment with life’s fluidity. Though pensive, intrigued by theory, and highly responsive to poetry, Tom’s first reaction to everything was musical, which means visceral. (“Music,” Virgil Thomson once wrote, “says more to the body than to the mind.”) O’Horgan’s first theater work was as a musician; I first saw him underscoring, with his harp, the Second City troupe’s improvisations in a cabaret on Washington Square.

When he moved on to directing, he managed to create, for a few brief, dazzling years at La MaMa, something approaching the theater that he essentially dreamed of all his life: a troupe of infinite resource and pliancy, with a contemporary sensibility, equivalent to a medieval band of strolling players. The playwrights working downtown, newly liberated from Broadway’s old-style naturalistic constraints, provided natural grist for his mill: Paul Foster’s Tom Paine, Rochelle Owens’s Futz!, Sam Shepard’s Chicago, and a dozen more. These became successes, a few even long-running Off-Broadway successes, and O’Horgan moved on; packaging hits was not the goal of his quest.

He moved, ironically, to Broadway, where such packaging was most valued. Calling him the “Creator of Hair,” as the Times obit initially did, was unfactual, yet utterly truthful. Others wrote, composed, and first directed Hair, but O’Horgan’s freewheeling approach genuinely created the odd, amorphous phenomenon that its worldwide public embraced. Hair became an experience rather than a theater event. The similarly O’Horganized Broadway productions that followed, including a second gigantic success, Jesus Christ Superstar (also “created” over the heads of its creators), confirmed that O’Horgan had found the way, in a subworld predicated wholly on commercial expectations, to make his visionary sensibility viable, even marketable.

That situation naturally couldn’t last. Broadway looked to systematize what it saw as simply a new bag of marketable tricks, and O’Horgan again moved on. He tried film; his aimed-for fluidity congealed unhappily on celluloid. He tried opera, creating the stunning visual coup with the Trojan Horse that made his Les Troyens in Vienna legendary; most opera houses weren’t ready then for his brand of daring. Cushioned by his Broadway royalties, he took up smaller-scale projects as they came to him, meanwhile building and populating his loft, and his life. Hard to sum up: He had made all the right “career moves” while barely pursuing a career at all; a quest is not a career. O’Horgan sought a theater that could perpetually change; the fluidity he sought engulfed and absorbed him. His achievements are virtually impossible to re-create. I think he might actually be rather proud of that. He would know, from Goethe, that only when Faust begs the beautiful moment to stay can the Devil finally entrap him.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 21, 2009

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