Tom O’Horgan was named Theatrical Director of the Year in 1968 by “Newsweek” magazine.” That watershed year was the apogee of his fame, when he brought “Hair” to Broadway after scoring with two other plays, “Tom Paine” (about the writer of the Revolutionary War-era tome “The Rights of Man”) and “Futz!” (about a young swain who falls in love with a swine).
O’Horgan had made his name Off-Off Broadway directing plays at the experimental La Mama Café (to skirt New York City’s cabaret licensing laws, the theatrical company called itself a café and accepted only donations) when he was called in to overhaul “Hair,” the tribal-rock musical that had bowed at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and had moved from there into a disco. O’Horogan threw out most of the narrative (the play ostensibly was about a young man facing the draft) and replaced some of the songs (he himself was a composer) and added what was then a revolutionary ingredient – nudity.
“Hair,” which premiered on Broadway on 1968, was the first production to hit the Great White Way to have actors sashaying around in the buff. Granted, show-girls had dropped their petticoats and starred in static tableaux vivant in the first part of the American Century, and the Minsky Brothers and Michael Todd had even brought burlesque to Broadway, but this was something else.
“Hair” went beyond the stylized peek-a-boo bare-assedness of the Follies or a burly-cue show. This was shameless, frank, full-frontal nudity for the burghers who patronized Broadway to enjoy in the guise of being a subversion of the very bourgeoisie the audience epitomized. (Young people then as now were not dedicated theater-goers, not at Broadway prices!)
Tom O’Horgan‘s directorial method was to encourage improvisation, and to create a sparse structure in which improvisation, or what passed for improvisation due to its spontaneous-seeming nature (due to a general overall sloppiness), could be encouraged. No one was forced to drop trou’ (in fact, one performer, Diane Keaton, refused to kick off her duds during her run of the play), but they were encouraged to express themselves, preferably without any recourse to that bourgeoisie mask that was clothing.
O’Horgan’s critics derided his technique as a lack of craft and a kind of professional anarchy. Anarchy was in in 1968, and “Hair” was a huge success. The critic John Simon pinpointed the very popularity of O’Horogan as lying in his willingness to give the people what they wanted.
At the time the movies Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were racking up the big bucks at the box office and laying waste to the old Hollywood paradigm, no one in motion pictures knew what the hell to expect of the coming decade. Tom O’Horgan was signed up to transfer “Futz” to film, and contemporaneous accounts forecasted a new kind of film culture in which the Tom O’Horgans of the world would take over from the Alfred Hitchcocks, the George Cuckors, and the Willy Wylers.
Besides generating publicity with a black and white photo of a totally naked Sally Kirkland astride a Brobdingnagian-sized sow in Al Goldstein’s “Screw” magazine, Futz! (1969) flopped. The era of Tom O’Horgan was through. Suddenly, the paragon of hip theater was as old-fashioned as button-down shoes. Nothing goes out of style faster than the fashionable.
Tom O’Horgan had one last success up his sleeve in the mid-’70s, a can’t-miss Broadway production based on The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” O’Horgan gave the public want they wanted, and they came. The show was later made into an egregious movie starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, but the closest O’Horgan came to it was a title card noting his contribution to creating the original show.