By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
These three mute human hatchlings with a vivid neon tan have sprouted up as ongoing theatrical hits in New York, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas--a Berlin debut follows in early 2004--and have mounted one of the most successful concert treks this year with The Complex Rock Tour. They've done 13 turns on The Tonight Show, wowed the Grammy Awards show performing with Moby and Jill Scott, walked away with a trophy (for Best Instrumental Rock Performance) for one of their two best-selling CDs and cavorted in TV commercials for the Intel Pentium chip. Of local note, the Blue Men were even presented with the debatable honor of the key to the city of Dallas when they visited last August to record their just-released Complex Rock Stage Tour Live DVD at NextStage, where they return this weekend.
What began as three wacky art brats in blue is now an efficiently honed and lubricated organization of nearly 500 performers, musicians, technicians and support, marketing and business staff. And yes, it all began with a joke.
It was 1988 in downtown pre-Giuliani Manhattan, a realm where post-punk music and performance art drank cheap beers elbow to elbow in dank East Village Polish bars. Graffitied on the walls outside were the upside-down cocktail glasses splashed up by Missing Foundation to declare that the yuppie party was over (little did they know...). Longtime friends Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink took the message to heart and, with some friends, staged a funeral for the 1980s and all its niggling pretensions one day in Central Park.
"We were all into the idea of performance art," Wink says, "but we couldn't relate to a lot of what was being done." Unlike, say, Karen Finley, they sought to do something a bit more jovial and witty than stuffing a yam up their rectum. Rock music fans, they got a kick from banging out beats on stuff they built from post-industrial supplies and detritus. And they liked catching tossed Twinkies in their mouths like dolphins leaping for mackerel. As a blueprint for theatrical success, it read on paper as even more destined for obscurity than the notion of Springtime for Hitler.
As Wink confesses with a chuckle, "We had no idea it would turn out like this." But when they marched bald and blue carrying a coffin into the park, it struck a chord with observers and the Blue Men themselves--especially the blue part. "We just chose blue because it was available. And it didn't have any immediate associations like green does with aliens or like blackface or whiteface or clown faces. And it was just this nice color."
Yet it was transformational, giving them a classic theatrical masque that Wink feels was "liberating." Like grown-up versions of graffiti artist Keith Haring's nuclear babies, the Blue Men were iconic figurines as blank slates, or, as the Los Angeles Times noted, cousins of Chauncey Gardiner and Forrest Gump--familiar and alien all at once. The three honed their bits on the streets and in performance spaces, and then started wowing the downtown NYC cognoscenti with shows at the edgy Wooster Theatre and a Lincoln Center performance art fest.
By 1991 they had investors and their own off-Broadway theater. Combining the immediacy of splashing paints with the percussive low end of rock and roll and the high-end flash of modern theatrical techniques, along with airborne snacks of silliness, the Blue Man Group show soon became a hit and continues as such today. Soon came the talk of branding, marketing and franchising. Seeing the burgeoning power of what they created night after night after night, the Blue Men wanted to make the most of their unexpected and uncommon opportunity but not lose the gift they received by becoming blue.
After all, in Blue Man guise, they could transfigure themselves and reality as well as provoke something visceral in others. The creatures they created, with their peculiar mix of primal human form and Roswellian otherness, spark elemental reactions in those they encounter, Stanton says. "One of the really interesting things that happened when we'd be out places as Blue Man was how people would act around us. They immediately get real friendly or laugh or get scared or even act like assholes towards us. It seemed to bring out something real and immediate in everyone." As the most effective performance art, if not all art, should, the Blue Man Group not only entertains but galvanizes.
So two years into their run, the Blue Men parted ways with their investors and set out to perfect and protect their creation. They spent a "very difficult" year, as Wink remembers it, codifying the Blue Man performance, personality and ethos (all the while continuing full weeks of strenuous performances). "Suddenly we had to really think about and figure out what it was we had been doing mostly for the fun of it." The ad hoc PVC instruments became the Drumbone and Tubulum, creating electronic-age musical tones from the organic use of modern materials. The trio cast and trained other Blue Men to open in Boston and Chicago and take over in New York. Vegas came calling, and they rolled out a high-tech theatrical spectacle to rival Siegfried & Roy getting mauled by rampaging tigers and pack the punters into the house.