Blue's Clues

A candid look inside associate editor Eric Celeste's office.
Debra Rotach

Blue Man Group is the goof heard 'round the world. From such simple elements as whimsy, gobs of blue greasepaint and a cobbled-together assortment of drums and PVC pipe instruments has been launched a modern entertainment and marketing juggernaut of proportions as stunning as the dazzling shows they present.

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.


Blue Man Group performs November 15 at NextStage.

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.

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"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.  

In the process, Goldman, Stanton and Wink also birthed a new form of modern arts organization. Like a Delta Force of Merry Pranksters, The Blue Man Group Inc. is now a strategic collaboration among its guiding founders and a troupe of performers, musicians, technicians, lighting and set designers, music arrangers and producers and more. By recasting Homo sapiens as Blue Man, they've managed to create a cerulean league that makes money as if they were printing it and still manage to extol the original prime directive of sheer fun.

"We knew that the only way to preserve Blue Man was to take control of it and define it for ourselves, which was not an easy task," Wink explains. Especially when offers from movies to lunch boxes were being thrown their way. Yet now more than a decade into being blue, they've managed not only to capture lightning in their own bottle but also replicate in five standing troupes and a touring company cum concert.

When the album of Blue Man Group instrumental music struck gold, it was only natural for them to splash their colors across the rock world as they did the theatrical realm. Hence The Complex, the new Blue Man album abetted by such singers as Dave Matthews (whose first date with his now mate was a Blue Man Group show), Tracy Bonham and Gavin Rossdale, among others. As musical works go, it's as naturally canny a tapestry of musical threads as the theatrical show in that its fashion mixes high and low, serious and silly, and cosmic and primal. Riding the compulsively seductive river of percussion that is pivotal to the Blue Man shows, it trips many lights fantastic in a range as broad as that between the disc's two cover songs--the acid Wonderland of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" to the blueprint disco hit of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." As a modern musical pastiche, it succeeds even without the dazzling lights, spectacular staging, vivid projections and three enigmatic azure hosts and leads; all but the Blue Men themselves are pretty much approximated within the vivid music.

But it's those beings that ultimately give Blue Man Group the edge as an entertainment experience. As Blue Man blossomed, his symbology became evident. On one hand, he is a prehistoric cave painting of a man pounding on a gourd with a bone. On the other, Blue Man is an eerily familiar if otherworldly creature manipulating the tools of technology to master time and space. With his blue skin and black jumpsuit, he is the icon as everyman and nobody in particular, which plays right into the underlying concept of the Complex Rock Tour.

"Our whole idea was to play with the conventions of the rock concert experience," Wink says. The notion was to celebrate, poke gentle fun at and turn inside out all the hand thrusts, sing-alongs, showmanship and star worship that drive the live big rock event. And in doing so, create something perhaps even larger. "It's a show that people who go to concerts but don't go to the theater can enjoy as well as people who like theater and don't go to rock concerts."

Amidst it all, the Blue Men probably also have even more fun than your average rock god as well as little of the attendant pressures--be they Blue Men old or new. Matthew Banks is a Canadian actor who was a key principal in the Las Vegas production now "starring," as it were, in the Complex Rock Tour. For him, taking on the Blue Man guise--whose characterless anonymity the founders admit is intended to represent modern social anomie--is also as transformational as it was for the originators. "In a weird way it's easier to approach people as a Blue Man than it is to just strike up conversations with strangers as a normal person," he notes, "even though you just stare at them and don't say a word."  

And even though the aptly named tour's myriad routines and cues are diverse, Banks marvels at how the spontaneity of its rebel-art origins still survives even for the hired guns. "A few shows back I was out in the audience by the light board when the hall went dark. I put out my arms and raised them up, and the soundman saw me do it and threw up the lights. Then the other Blue Men started doing it with me, and it became part of the show."

For the three founders, Blue Man Group is now a growing gravy factory with a set of offices, recording studio and theater rehearsal spaces in Lower Manhattan in which collaboration and inspiration can thrive and fun, fun, fun remains one of the benefits. "I can fly to Berlin for a press conference, come back to the office in New York for meetings and then go up to Connecticut for a show on the tour and get onstage and splash paint around and beat on things," Wink notes. "This has turned into something really cool."

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