Blue Man Coup

Blue Man Coup This month, those manic men in blueface celebrate another spectacular feat—12 years Off-Broadway and still going strong

Blue Man Group enters The Terrible Teens on Nov. 15. Now the mischief really begins. At 12, it is still the youngest show in town. There is nothing wizened here, no hardening of the arteries—only boys at play, suspended in time and arrested development.

The three who created and comprised the first Blue Man Group (Phil Stanton, Chris Wink and Matt Goldman) long ago kicked themselves upstairs to corporate headquarters and don’t perform as much. They yearn to, but they have given at the office, having done the first 1,286 shows—six days a week for three years—without a break or an understudy. The advent of understudies meant they were no longer prisoners of their own success. They were free to run their company, explore new venues and refine the act.

They are now twirling plates profitably in three other cities—Boston (1995), Chicago (1997) and Vegas (2000). Their debut album, "Audio," came out in 1999, and they just released a second, "The Complex," which is the musical sound ‘n’ fury for The Blue Man Group Rock Tour, their latest theatrical spin-off, which recently wrapped an almost-50-city gig.

Blue Man Group has multiplied from three friends to a 500-person organization. It entertains more than 20,000 people a week in 38 shows where ticket prices range from $43 to $88. Pretty good, you gotta admit, for bongo-banging and paint-splashing.

And through this astonishing success, Blue Man Group has maintained their original focus and integrity—but not without some concerted effort. When it became apparent (in Boston) that their original vision was changing when others did the piece, the trio spent a year creating a 138-page handbook on how, nuance for nuance, the show should be done. Other things haven’t changed, as well. “See?” Wink says with a wink, throwing his hand grandly at the spread of veggies and dip that adorns the executive-suite coffee table. “We’re still caterers. To this day. I got up this morning and got out my knife and . . . ”

He trails off into a mock riff, but the truth remains: Wink met Stanton, an aspiring actor from Savannah, on the latter’s first job in New York, dishing out Glorious Food, and they then hooked up with Goldman, a friend of Wink’s from high school, to share an apartment and many a late-night discussion about the sad state of high and low pop culture under the Reagan administration. Wink and Stanton were drummers, and Goldman was a software producer with an MBA, so they decided to pool their unnatural resources and put on a performance piece to protest.

They went bald and beautifully blue for the occasion, slapping on blueface and latex skullcaps to perform “a funeral for the eighties” up in Central Park, railing against yuppies, cocaine and postmodern architecture. It was 1988 and the birth of Blue Man Group.

The next three years were spent busking on sidewalks, then perfecting their act at LaMama before they invaded the Astor Place Theatre in 1991. One suspects from the show they put on that the former caterer–waiters must’ve played with their Glorious Food. They’re unusually adept at lobbing marshmallows and gum balls into each other’s mouths and then spitting them out onto a spinning canvas. They also apply paint to canvas by banging on drums or plucking some audience volunteer, stringing him up by his heels and swinging him into the canvas. The “artwork” is sold in the lobby after the show. Eat your heart out, Jackson Pollock!

“The whole thing was kind of a glorious accident—well, not an accident, but there weren’t any master plans,” explains Wink. “One thing led to another. No offense to Phil’s acting talent, but turning our lack of any obvious talent into an asset is like saying, ‘Well, I’m a mediocre drummer, but if you make a tube instrument, I’d be at the top.’”

Stanton stayed the actor. “I used to study with Wynn Handman, and he’d say, ‘Well, is it acting?’ and I’d say, ‘It’s not really acting. I think it’s living art or something.’ Now, of course, I think it’s very serious acting. We draw from the modern American techniques, but there’s a unique approach that Blue Man has to acting that I think is a real discipline.”

Wink seconds the motion. “Ever since we opened in ’91,” he says, “we’ve used the stage as an extension of our schooling. We would take workshops—and not just workshops on how to be a Blue Man, either. We would do mask workshops. We didn’t realize that we were a part of this ancient tradition of masks. It seems obvious—we wore masks—but the craft of it, the inner work of mask work, was something we discovered after the fact. We learned about Yves Klein and his obsession with the color blue after we already had the characters. It’s a real weird reversal of how we have come to things.”