True Blue to an Artistic Vision

Mimi Avins is a Times staff writer

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 withChekhov or something. It turned out to be like an acid trip in first grade that happens when the teacher leaves the room."

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 L.A. 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 imagined. Today Blue Man Group Productions is a thriving theatrical conglomerate with a staff of 473, companies performing in New York, Boston, Chicago 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 philistine.

"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.' "

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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 nonlinear. 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 trio was 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.

Recruiting audience members one at a time had obvious limitations, so the Blue Men accepted every opportunity for publicity. "We'd stay bald and blue for 19 hours if we could get a camera crew from a terrible British TV show to cover us. We weren't discriminating," Goldman says. "We didn't feel we could be, because the theater was half-empty, and we were killing ourselves, still creating the show while we were doing it."

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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. When they performed part of their act, Gifford reacted like a narrow-minded Connecticut housewife. But Philbin dug them, even if, like most people, he stumbled over himself trying to define what they did.

"I firmly believe that the reason people would come to the show six or eight times is they'd try to describe it to their friends and they couldn't, so they'd just bring them," Goldman says.

Reviewing Blue Man Group Las Vegas last year, Los Angeles Times theater critic Michael Phillips called it "a postmodern vaudeville routine, Ernie Kovacs' old Nairobi Trio act brought up to date." 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.' "

That's what audiences were saying too, and as selling tickets became less of a struggle, "no" returned to Blue Man's vocabulary. "We got more specific about what we'd do to get attention," Wink says, "not to be divas about it, but to protect the sanctity of the character." They've been guests on "The Tonight Show" 10 times since 1992, and the way they developed special, brief bits for those appearances turned out to be the perfect training for their Grammy number.

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.' "

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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. "We wanted to be one organization with a common goal," Stanton explains. "It's not like the Blue Men are performers and the crew is less important." 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.

Several years ago, they scouted for a location in Los Angeles. "People would say, "We can boast the longest run in L.A.: 46 weeks," Goldman says. "For us, it's too much work, too expensive, involves so much of us to open in a new city that if we don't plant roots for several years, it doesn't make sense. We drove all around Los Angeles, trying to find the theater district, and we found it in Las Vegas."

They talk about launching a Blue Man Group touring company, and their five-year contract with the Luxor includes a clause that would let them perform in Los Angeles 12 weeks a year.

At any point, the founders could have chosen to be only performers, to hire managers, agents and a chief financial officer for their production company. Instead, they transformed themselves into artist-businessmen. They spent nearly a year formalizing a company manual and value statement, trying to figure out what sort of corporate structure would best nurture creativity. "We saw running the business as an artistic endeavor. We felt it was as important to have things go right in the office or backstage as onstage," Goldman says.

There is a chief financial officer of Blue Man Productions, but he came up through the ranks, in what the founders describe as a collective fueled by cooperation and collaboration. A creative development department investigates Blue Man Group opportunities on the Internet (they have a Web site, http://www.blueman.com), in software, CD-ROMs and music.

They're always developing new material at a vast rehearsal hall in the East Village the company has owned since 1997. With no specific venue in mind, they began creating segments for a show that could only be done in a space larger than their theaters in New York, Boston and Chicago. When Mandalay Resort Group, owner of the Luxor, approached them, offering a gigantic showroom, they saw their chance to open up the show and work with a bigger band. "The idea that Las Vegas was a huge challenge made it exciting," Stanton says. "When people said we wouldn't be viewed the same way if we went to Vegas, part of me wanted to say, 'Let's just do what they say we can't do.' "

Playing off-Broadway, training armies of Blue Men, opening in Las Vegas, doing commercials for Intel and marketing a music CD have all been cited as evidence of Blue Man Group selling out. The criticism doesn't faze them. They wrote the Intel spots themselves, and saw them as chances to make little 30-second films, practice for an eventual Blue Man Group movie. Besides, they didn't feel they were hawking a product. Intel is a brand, a good fit because Blue Man Group sees itself as a brand too. The Las Vegas show recouped an initial $7-million investment before its first anniversary, and as the town increasingly attracts sophisticated travelers who wouldn't have been caught dead there five years ago, Blue Man Group's 12 shows a week consistently sell out.

"We've been battling snobbery in others and in ourselves from the beginning," Wink says. "People thought off-Broadway wasn't ready for the avant-garde. And people thought Vegas wasn't ready for something cool."

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Blue Man Group is cool, fun, original and obviously, 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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