Chicago-born Tom O’Horgan, best known for directing the Broadway premieres of the musicals Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Inner City, as well as the drama Lenny, died January 11 at the age of 84. Described by the New York Times as “a famously innovative director who brought a Downtown, countercultural sensibility to Uptown theater,” O’Horgan studied music at DePaul University, and worked with Chicago’s fabled Playwrights Theatre Club in the mid-1950s. His onetime colleague, noted Chicago author/teacher/director Sheldon Patinkin, recalls:
“A group of us had broken away from the University of Chicago Theatre and opened Playwrights Theatre Club on the near north side, which lasted from 1953 to 1955. We then opened the Compass, the predecessor to Second City. Tom O’Horgan joined us for our third show and was the composer for all the shows we did at Playwrights that needed original songs and/or incidental music; he never charged us. Among the shows he wrote for were Miss Julie, Peer Gynt, and the four Shakespeare shows we did to begin our second season.
“I don’t know how Tom found us. I think he must have seen our first show and volunteered. (There was no mention ever during all the time he worked with us that he might also have been interested in directing.) Tom wasn’t using the “O'” in those days and made a living playing the harp and singing, mostly Irish songs. We were all poor and he lived in a penthouse, also on the near north side, where he gave parties for us every once in a while with lots of food.
“I was the pianist for all our shows that needed live music and for the scores we recorded at the one-man studio owned by the father of one of our ensemble members. The recording sessions were held after hours, which usually meant starting after 11 at night and going most of the rest of the night. Tom recruited the rest of the band, I don’t know from where. No one got paid, not even Mr. Cunliffe, the guy who owned the place. The first show Tom wrote for us was for Woyzek, our third show, which had Ed Asner, Byrne and Joyce Piven, and Barbara Harris in the cast. The score was for live solo piano with tacks on the hammers, played backstage as if from another room during the tavern scenes. It was one of the most difficult pieces of music I’d ever played, including downward double chromatic glissandos on a black key and a white key that were next to each other, the black key above the white key. It made my right index finger bleed at least once a week. And then I had to run onstage and be the innkeeper.
“No matter how late it was or how badly things were going, Tom never lost his cool. And his scores were invariably exactly what was needed for whatever the show was and whatever the production concept was. He was a very talented man. He was also a very nice man.”