Blue Man Group, at 25, Reveal How a Lady Gaga Joke Got Killed and What They Look Like Without All That Makeup
The founders of downtown New York's avant-garde ensemble — Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman — dish on their new sketches (now involving iPads) and how innovation keeps the franchise alive.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It's been a quarter-century since a trio of mute, alienlike creatures with cobalt-colored domes landed in Greenwich Village to the amplified sound of Cap'n Crunch munching. Spattering paint in giant drums, gorging on Twinkies and transforming PVC pipes into musical instruments, the bemused blue men from another planet tried to make sense of our strange world, creating a ritualistic bacchanal complete with streaming rolls of paper and a barrage of beach balls.
During the intervening years, Blue Man Group has evolved from a postmodern New York performance art piece into a downtown institution celebrated for its primal musicmaking, art and technology pranks and other messy, manic mayhem. Today, it's a worldwide juggernaut, with permanent editions running in six cities as well as North American and international tours, including one recently launched in Singapore. Since 1991, the Blue Man Group show has toured 15 countries and reached 35 million fans. The show that pioneered the way for other senses-shaking ensembles such as Stomp, Fuerza Bruta and De La Guarda also has released three full-length studio albums — including their Grammy-nominated debut, Audio — and a new one, Three, available April 22. The trio also has spawned a rock tour, a museum exhibit on the art and science of sound and a luxe coffee-table book, Blue Man World, set to be published in October.
Co-founders Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman have much to reflect on, but Wink admits he feels "a little ambivalent" about the silver anniversary. Such a milestone, he says, implies longevity but also stasis. While such long-running behemoths as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables tout instant familiarity to audiences, Blue Man Group's founders trace the show's enduring appeal to its constantly transforming nature.
"This isn't 'Cats: 25 Years Later,' " says Wink. "[Cats] will never change — they even brag, 'Now and forever,' in their tagline. We're the opposite: We're always moving and evolving." He's perched alongside Stanton in one of Blue Man Group's rehearsal studios on the Lower East Side. (Goldman has stepped aside from day-to-day operations to oversee a Blue Man-inspired creative-learning charter school in Manhattan, aptly named Blue School.) Blue Man Group boasts several staple bits — marshmallow tossing, spraying mouthfuls of paint onto spinning canvases, all still done wordlessly — but many of the pop-culture references and technological tricks are refreshed continually. For example, the new material includes a sketch with giant "GiPads" descending from the rafters — a riff on the ways our handheld devices have become an extension of ourselves.
So that’s what they really look like (from left): Stanton, Wink and Goldman sans makeup.
"There's core material to the show that's timeless: the primal, ritualistic stuff with the paint and the drums, the big, crazy paper streams at the end," says Wink, who along with his co-creators only occasionally "gets blue" these days. "Those are actually the parts that become more relevant, that contrast with the modern world. But the aspects that reference pop culture and technology, those need to change a lot." An early punchline referencing Volkswagen's "Fahrvergnugen" ad campaign quickly became outdated and was discarded. Skits about virtual reality during the '90s and a sing-along to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" were tossed. A Lady Gaga-inspired costume-change sequence was inserted for about a year before being deemed passe. "We noticed that the shelf life of a pop-culture joke is getting shorter and shorter," says Stanton.
Where the show once trafficked in satirizing art-world pretensions (a parody of Andrew Wyeth's magical realism painting Christina's World remains), it also has shown affection for artists from which it has cribbed — its LED signs are inspired by the work of Jenny Holzer. Some of the more esoteric references to abstract expressionism, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol have fallen by the wayside, replaced by sketches that critique technology's ever-increasing intrusion into our lives. Meanwhile, Blue Man Group shows at the Las Vegas, Berlin and Orlando outposts are customized with exclusive content. "We never want to dumb down the show," says Wink. "But we've made sure we're creating content that multiple diverse cultures can connect with. That's why we've leaned more toward the technology elements — everyone's got a smartphone now."
The group has created many unique instruments for its show.
The show also has seeped deep into popular culture. David Cross' self-absorbed character on Arrested Development, Tobias, had a long-running obsession with the troupe, at one point mistakenly showing up covered in cobalt-blue paint at a support group for depressed "blue men." He vows to become a Blue Man understudy and auditions for the group — which made several cameo appearances on the series.
The birth of Blue Man Group can be traced to its creators staging impromptu guerrilla performance-art pieces throughout New York City during the late '80s. They would set up a rectangle of velvet ropes on the sidewalk outside a nightclub and call it Club Nowhere, inviting onlookers to join them in a raucous street-dance party. Soon the pranksters began developing a show titled Tubes at such downtown institutions as P.S. 122 and La MaMa before moving in fall 1991 to the 299-seat Astor Place Theatre, where they have been ensconced since. Audiences went gaga over the show, while critics deemed it everything from "a deliriously antic blend of music, painting and clowning" to "a performance-art pigout." Wink remembers Bruce Willis and Demi Moore taking the performers and their crew to dinner after a show they attended.
Originally, Blue Man Group had a three-year deal with their producers that was set to expire in 1994. The producers wanted to extend and make a new deal, but Wink, Stanton and Goldman wrested back majority control and offered the producers a cut of future revenue. They even were approached by other producers about moving the show to Broadway; the founders declined the offer, fearing such a large expansion would close after a year or two and cannibalize future prospects. "I think that's an important decision we made: to go for long-range sustainability," says Wink. "The aesthetic and the spirit of the show have been at the heart of our decisions many times, and it's ended up being good business."
Blue Man Group returned regularly to Leno’s 'The Tonight Show' after a first appearance in 1992.
Instead, Blue Man Group had a slow, steady build, with subsequent productions opening in Boston (1995) and Chicago (1997). Early appearances on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno helped juice brand awareness, including a bit in which the performers turned Robin Williams into a human paintbrush. But it was a series of Intel commercials during the early 2000s that amplified word of mouth. "People really got to know Blue Man, not just here but in other parts of the world," says Stanton. "Those ads played everywhere."
The trio also convinced Intel to agree to a crucial element: branding Blue Man Group with text in the corner of every ad. "If it hadn't said that, people would have thought Intel created the characters," maintains Stanton. "Instead, the world got to know Blue Man Group." The commercials also helped bolster their move to Vegas, where the show is performed in a much larger 850-seat custom-built venue. Since opening in March 2000 — first at Luxor before moving to the Venetian and Monte Carlo hotels and returning to Luxor — it has become a Strip staple. "It was a big jump — I'm not sure we were ready for it," says Wink. "We were a headliner in this big room, and for a while there weren't full houses. It was complete kismet that Intel approached us at around that time. If we hadn't done those ads, I don't know how successful we would have been there."
The Vegas production became an economic engine that boosted the company's bottom line and allowed the founders to expand the creative team in New York, which oversees the growing empire and ensures the various iterations constantly are being refreshed.
"I can look back and think of several moments when the whole trajectory could have come to a stop if just a few things had gone differently," says Wink. "There's nothing about this journey that feels like it was a sure thing, from the very beginning and all along the way. So we're grateful. But we also know that we have to keep earning our relevance."
4 MILESTONES FOR A CREATIVE TRIO: HOW BLUE MAN GROUP WAS BUILT TO LAST
Off-Broadway 1991 debut
Three years after opening at the Astor Place Theatre, the founders wrested control back from the original producers. Says Wink, “We had to play hardball to make that happen.”
The Tonight Show in 1992
Blue Man Group appeared during one of Jay Leno’s first weeks as host. Without that opportunity, says Wink, “I don’t know how long we would have stayed open in New York.” play hardball to make that happen.”
Going commercial in 2000s
The founders agreed to collaborate with Intel on a series of TV spots, which “allowed people to get to know the characters and helped spread the word about the show,” says Stanton.
Penn & Teller were instrumental in bringing Blue Man Group to Las Vegas in 2000. The venerated Sin City duo, says Wink, “invited us out there and showed us the ropes.”