By Mimi Avins
Dustin Hoffman assured his then-12-year-old son, one New York
evening in 1993, that going to see Blue Man Group would be fun.
Photos on the marquee of the NoHo theater were compelling enough--an
alienoid creature staring out through big, curious eyes. Passersby who
didn't know any more than the Hoffmans about what an evening of music
and comedy offered by a trio of bald, blue men might be, would look
and wonder: Who is Blue Man, why is he here and what does he want?
Hoffman, father and son, decided to find out. They descended into
a tiny cave of a theater where three performance artists had fashioned
an unlikely off-Broadway hit out of splattering paint, homemade
percussion instruments, Hostess Twinkies and a smorgasbord of notions
that explore and satirize the significance of art and technology.
"Jake didn't want to go," Hoffman remembers. "He was afraid he was
going to get hit with Chekhov or something. It turned out to be like
an acid trip in 1st grade that happens when the teacher leaves the
After the 90-minute show, the Hoffmans went backstage to meet the Blue
Men--Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink. Once they'd removed
their makeup and latex skullcaps, the performers engaged their
visitors in a rambling four-hour discussion of the problem that has
intrigued them from the beginning: How do you achieve global
commercial domination and not lose your soul?
The question hadn't exactly been verbalized 13 years ago, when three
friends in their late 20s first covered their heads with blue paint
and staged guerrilla theater skits on Manhattan sidewalks. But Blue
Man Group was just a goof then, the kernel of an idea that would later
pop bigger, tastier and louder than Goldman, Stanton and Wink ever
Today Blue Man Group Productions is a thriving theatrical conglomerate
with a staff of 473, companies performing in Chicago (at the Briar
Street Theatre), New York, Boston and Las Vegas, and an annual
operating budget of $28 million. So the dilemma of maintaining
artistic integrity that they considered with Hoffman nearly eight
years ago in the dank catacombs beneath the Astor Place Theater is
more relevant than ever.
They aren't earnest young hopefuls anymore. Last month, they performed
for the Grammy Awards TV audience, estimated at more than 55 million.
How the indigo triumvirate went from the fringes of New York's
underground art scene to a 1,200-seat showroom at the Luxor in Las
Vegas, a Grammy nomination for best pop instrumental album and
national exposure via a clever batch of TV commercials for Intel is a
remarkable story. Not just because the founders journeyed from
obscurity to fame. The miracle is that they got there without
sacrificing their vision. Their achievement is all the more
impressive, since Blue Man Group could have gone wrong more times than
a Blue Man has fingers and toes.
The three original Blues (there are now 33, including a female Blue
Man in Boston) never lost sight of how important it was that their
creation -- this baby, wise man, alien, everyman -- not turn into a
"By definition, an actor has to have a job to practice his craft,"
Hoffman says. "These guys had somehow beaten that hurdle. Picasso
expressed what they did. At one point, he said, `If they took away all
my paints, I'd use pastels, if they took away my pastels, I'd use
crayons, if they took away my crayons, I'd use a pencil. If they put
me in a cell, and stripped me of everything, I'd spit on my finger and
draw on the wall.' And that's what I thought Blue Man Group had
accomplished. `You can't stop me' seemed to be the subtext of what
they were doing. `I can stand in the middle of the street and cover
myself with paint and I will perform.'"
The first public Blue Men sighting occurred in 1988. Nine men and women who'd met at informal salon gatherings put on blueface and staged a funeral for the '80s in Central Park, to annihilate such annoyances as yuppies, cocaine and postmodern architecture. They solemnly threw artifacts of the period into a coffin that served as an anti-time capsule. Goldman and Wink, now 39 and 40, had been best buddies since junior high school. When they met Stanton, now 41, after college, they discovered they all yearned to be the art world's Ben & Jerry. If you were a software producer with an MBA (as Goldman was) or a drummer and aspiring actor (as Stanton was) and found yourself in conversation with someone who also devoured high and low culture as voraciously as peanuts, you'd revel in the company of a kindred spirit. So with Wink -- a drummer who paid the rent by synopsizing articles for a Japanese magazine and then took a job as a waiter for a catering company -- they pondered how they could pursue their diverse interests and still make a living.
"It was the mid-'80s, and we wanted to figure out what our generation's voice was going to be," Wink says. "`Rambo' and `thirtysomething' didn't work for us. Reagan was president, and there was no music scene. Art had become about celebrities. We looked all over the world and the century for inspiration -- at Kodo drummers, the Bauhaus, '60s happenings, the Abstract Expressionists, Pink Floyd, punk rock and the comedy of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. We were interested in performance art and science. We'd ask, `What is it about art that seems both promising and pretentious?'"
The decision to be blue, not chartreuse, was the only accidental element of Blue Man's genesis. Everything else was analyzed ad nauseam, from how many Blue Men there should be ("three puts you where community and isolation meet," the founders decided) to what instruments they should play (they wanted to fulfill John Lennon's prediction that new inventions would eventually supplant guitars and keyboards).
At first, Blue Man was conceived as a painting come to life. A lot of performance art was tediously talky then -- psychotherapy in the presence of an audience. Sometimes early Blue Man spoke. Sometimes he didn't. "When Blue Man stopped talking, we noticed that suddenly our personalities went away, and this other character showed up who was more profound," Wink says. "Not speaking almost felt like a form of rebellion."
If he didn't speak or sing or dance, what was Blue Man doing onstage? He was challenging the audience to accept that art isn't necessarily elitist, humor doesn't have to be verbal, music need not be melodic, and entertainment can be non-linear. Perhaps the sound of Cap'n Crunch being munched is a language. Maybe music should be seen and heard.
"In the '80s and early '90s," Wink says, "performance art wasn't accessible. We gave the audience a childlike stupidness they didn't expect."
Blue Man Group secured spots in shows that were the performance art equivalent of comedy open-mike nights. No money changed hands, but the three were given the stage for 10 or 20 minutes, often after the monologuist and before the dance troupe. New York's experimental Wooster Theater Group offered the three a chance to do an hour of material. Then they participated in a performance art festival at Lincoln Center that sold out 1,250-seat Alice Tully Hall. By then, Stanton had also signed on with Glorious Food, the catering company that nourished the social life of New York's highest caste, and the three used their conventional jobs to support their performances.
After they received a three-minute standing ovation at Lincoln Center, Blue Man Group received an offer of financing from a pair of producers for a show off-Broadway. Although they parted company with those investors after three years, the Blue Men acknowledge the leap of faith their backers took.
"We opened late in 1991, and there was no `Stomp,' no `De La Guarda,' nothing even like `Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,'" Stanton says. "There were only plays with couches in the middle of the stage and standard musicals. Nothing like us had yet had a commercial run."
Ever self-aware, the Blue Men pinpoint consenting to accept outside financing as the moment they lost their innocence. They were careful to maintain the rights to their material and to put a time limit on their Faustian contract. The alternative would have been navigating the grant system, but they considered the requisite networking and groveling demeaning. Above all, they rejected the anti-establishment canon that finds nobility in obscurity.
When the off-Broadway show first opened, Goldman would occasionally hang out in front of the theater. He has the ingratiating manner of a happy family's baby brother and when someone would stop, look at the poster, then walk away, he'd go after them and inquire why they hadn't bought a ticket. Then he'd try to talk them into coming to a performance.
"You can bring anything you want with you, anything that helps you relax," he'd say suggestively.
Their efforts gradually paid off, and within six months, positive word had spread. One long, dizzying day early in 1992, Blue Man Group appeared on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" in the morning and as themselves on "The Charlie Rose Show" at night.
There are bits of Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardiner and Forrest Gump in Blue Man, and Wink acknowledges vaudeville as an influence. "In the beginning, we asked ourselves, `If you don't have a plot, how do you structure an evening?' Vaudeville didn't have plots either. They just knew you had to have a good beginning and a great finale. And you needed to do things that the audience couldn't do. That's why they juggled."
The Blue Men invented a new specialty -- catching food in their mouths. They transformed lobbing marshmallows and gum balls into a wild tribal ritual. Flying foodstuffs date to Wink and Stanton's days as Glorious Food waiters. In the wee hours after an elaborate party, when the tired staff was surrounded by once edible debris, food fights frequently erupted.
Stanton, who seems the quietest and most serious of the trio, helped establish the projectile properties of cream cheese. Food was the perfect medium for Blue Man.
Wink says, "Blue Man sees Jell-O and toothpaste gel and says to himself, `Wow. Now we're onto something.'"
Once the show was a hit, a focus on keeping Blue Man pure became as important a survival skill as filling the theater had once been. "We realized we had something very special with the Blue character -- special in here," Goldman says, thumping his fist on his heart. "We wanted him to be around for decades, not for months or even years."
So when the offers came in -- for HBO and Showtime specials and feature films, for Blue Men on Ice and Blue Man theme park rides -- the answer was "no."
A record company called and asked, "Can the Blue Men rap?" A Japanese promoter wanted to mount an international tour. Commercials for blue M&M's, Tic Tacs, antacids and Life Savers were suggested. Blue Man Group could have been the symbol of the American Express Blue card. "Any time someone came out with something blue," Goldman says, "there'd be some genius in an advertising agency who'd say, `Oh, my God. I've got it! Let's get Blue Man Group.'
"Some suitors thought they'd win over the group by pointing out that its 15 minutes of fame were ticking away so the three had better grab what they could. No scenario could have been less appealing, and their conversation with Hoffman reinforced their thinking.
"One of the aspects of their talent was that they really found their own authentic voice," Hoffman says. "Nothing kills originality faster than packaging it. What they were being offered was to repeat what they'd done, and by repeating it, they'd be killing it. So I warned them, and said, `Look, you've got something that everyone wants and that they give away: It's that you can make your own decisions. You can be creative; you can make mistakes. Realize that that's precious.'"
One decision was always clear: "Blue Man Group was never meant to be one little show," Goldman says. As demand for tickets continually increased, the original little show -- in a theater of 299 seats -- went from eight to nine to 10 performances a week.
Even that expansion wasn't enough to support the future the founders envisioned. The plan to open outside New York was borne of necessity. It wasn't that the success of the first show made opening in a second city possible. Revenues from a Boston company were needed to sustain more growth, and all growth supported Blue Man Group's autonomy.
For the first three years off-Broadway, Goldman, Stanton and Wink performed every show -- 1,285 in a row -- with no understudies providing relief if fatigue or the flu struck.
To open in Boston in 1995, they had to let someone else be Blue.
"We had talked a lot about how the Blue character required subjugating the individual ego," says Wink, the most loquacious triplet, who could be depended on to intellectualize Velcro. "Now we had to put our money where our mouths were."
New Blue Men couldn't be trained unless the character's philosophy was articulated. The orientation for Blue Man boot camp begins with 30 hours of videotape on which the trio deconstruct Blue Man drumming, acting and attitude. Recruits spend hours practicing their skills, being coached and critiqued. Each prospective Blue Man must trail the show's crew members, to understand the challenges of their jobs.
After six months of training, a prospective Blue Man rotates into one of the shows. Now three full-time casting experts search for potential Blue Men on college campuses, at drummers' trade shows and theater festivals. Some accomplished percussionists haven't been able to do Blue Man drumming, which has a visual as well as an aural component. Not all actors can master drumming, or catching food in their mouths. Finding people with the right physical proportions who understand the Zen aspect of Blueness is tricky.
Instructions to Blue Man might be: "Don't just stand there -- do nothing!" How hard is that? Hard. The guys behind Blue Man's blank facade are as savvy as he is guileless. They deliberately keep control of every aspect of their growth, and as the ranks of Blue Men have swelled, the founders have had more time to devote to running the production company and shepherding new ventures.
Blue Man Group is original and, apparently, unstoppable. But is it art?
Wink asks, "What's the difference between art and a Twinkie? Blue Man spurts colors, and it becomes art or waste, depending on where it lands. If, by art, you mean something simple and available to everybody that's not a big deal, then, yes, we're art. But if you mean is it important and elitist, we'd rather be known as comedians."
Artists might fear selling out more than Blue Man Group does. Indulging each other's contrarian natures, the founders have chosen to do whatever they thought they could accomplish well. The fact that commercialism wasn't their highest value wound up working for them, in a strange sort of way. Hoffman, who hasn't seen them perform since they met in New York, isn't aware of how Blue Man Group has grown.
"You mean they've been able to franchise themselves and not alter the essence of what they were about?" he asks. "That's amazing. They just might be the only ones to do that."
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