O’Horgan, Tom: Creator of Smash Musical Hair Dies at 84

Tom O’Horgan, an innovative director who brought a Downtown, countercultural sensibility to Uptown theater, most exuberantly in the 1968 hippie-celebration-cum-musical Hair, died Sunday at his home in Venice, Florida. He was 84.

His death was announced by his friend Marc Cohen. No cause was given. O’Horgan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. O’Horgan’s loft at 840 Broadway (at 13th Street) in Manhattan, which he left in 2007, was known for parties and salons attended by theatrical and artistic figures.

Among Mr. O’Horgan’s other Broadway plays were “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Lenny” and “Inner City.” His earlier work at La Mama Experimental Theater Club included challenging productions like “Futz!” “Tom Paine” and “The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria” that showcased Mr. O’Horgan’s wittily physical approach to theater.

As a composer, singer, actor, director and musician himself, Mr. O’Horgan espoused a concept of “total theater,” throwing together acrobatics, dance, pantomime and a riot of music that seemed like chaos to some members of the theatrical establishment. But to the younger generation and its fellow travelers, “Hair,” perhaps more than any other play of the 1960s, was the truest, most enduring expression of the hippie scene.

Critic Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times that the show exuded “a kind of radiant freshness.” He said that it seemed “as though the whole thing is swiftly, deftly, and dazzlingly being improvised before your eyes.”

Mr. O’Horgan, who was once called the “Busby Berkeley of the acid set” though he said he did not take drugs himself, would gladly have gone even further with “Hair,” which opened in 1968 and transformed a mildly successful off-Broadway musical into a Broadway hit. He proposed creating a hippie community of actors living right in the theater so that the audiences would see their laundry and garbage as they entered. It didn’t happen.

As it was, the director prepared actors by having them undress in slow motion, praying to God and Buddha and jostling one another. He had them deliver lines while being carried about or doing handstands. He said he thought of his work as “kinetic sculpture.”

O’Horgan is credited with helping discover the actors Frederic Forrest, Ben Vereen, and Ron Perlman.

He was nominated for a Tony in 1969 for best direction of a musical for “Hair.” which won three Drama Desk Awards for his Off Broadway direction. He was later named theatrical director of the year by Newsweek in 1968.

Tom O’Horgan was born in Chicago on May 3, 1924. His father, who owned a suburban newspaper, was a frustrated actor who took his son to shows and concerts and built footlights and a wind machine for him. He grew up singing in churches and writing plays. At 12, the boy wrote an opera darkly titled “Doom of the Earth.”

Mr. O’Horgan studied at DePaul University in Chicago, where he learned to play dozens of instruments. After college, he played as a harpist with orchestras and performed with Second City, the Chicago improvisatory group. He moved to New York and began acting at places like Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village while supporting himself by performing in night clubs. His act was doing improvisational humor as he played the harp.

His first assignment for La Mama was to direct “The Maids,” by Jean Genet. Unlike the director of an off-Broadway production the year before, Mr. O’Horgan complied with the playwright’s instructions to cast men in the three female roles. He became a protégé of Ellen Stewart, La Mama’s founder and director, and by 1968 directed about 50 plays, films and happenings with the troupe.

He drew favorable notice when the troupe toured Europe. Elsa Gress, a Danish novelist and playwright, wrote in Drama Review in 1969, “In this period, Tom had occasion to realize his Renaissance idea of ‘the whole actor,’ or juggler, who could dance, sing, play instruments, stand on his left ear while acting, and incidentally say lines.”

Mr. O’Horgan, who amassed an impressive collection of musical unusual instruments at his 3,000-square-foot loft, left no immediate survivors; in the fall of 2007, he opened his museum-like space to the public for a sale of his instruments, theatrical memorabilia and art.

He never repeated his success on Broadway. He remembered one legacy of “Hair” in the interview, saying, “Every play that opened in the next six months had to have an obligatory nude scene, no matter what, usually in the most tasteless possible fashion.”