Following The Bliss Of A Blue Man
The Blue Man Group’s How To Be A Megastar Tour 2.1 can be most easily described as Dr. Suess meets Sousa. What better way to articulate the primitive rhythms that course their way through contorted PVC pipes and other instruments with such eccentric names as the Tubulum, the Drumbone and the Piano Smasher, all the while being played by three earless, cobalt mutes.
The Blue Man Group began as an expressive idea that sprung from the minds of Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton (collectively known as CMP) while they were working as caterers at Glorious Foods in Manhattan, New York. They donned the now familiar blue grease paint, latex bald caps and black clothing in the late eighties, appearing on the streets in full regalia. Sometimes they meandered sporadically through the city, astoundingly innocent in their observations of their surrounding and the myriad masses of people that walked past, equally astounded by their appearance. Other times were spent mimicking dance moves across the street from hot nightspots sans music. They held a funeral for the Eighties, which prompted a modicum of media exposure.
Eventually, they began performing small routines in The CLUB at LaMama Experimental Theater Club, garnering them a review in the New York Times, by critic Stephen Holden hailing the show as a “deliriously antic blend of music, painting and clowning.” Their short performances led to The CLUB’s owner, Meryl Vladimer, commissioning the group to create a full length show, which resulted in TUBES. The Blue Man Group’s popularity quickly soared and the show garnered them a Obie Award as well as a Lucille Lortel Award which led the show to be taken to the Astor Place Theater off Broadway in 1991.
Since those early days, the Blue Man Group has become and empire unto itself, breaking through in advertisements, the music industry, stage, theater and movies as well as toy development, a traveling museum exhibit and even a school for children with an emphasis on creative learning processes. Their shows are staples in New York, Chicago, Boston, Orlando and Las Vegas with tours across North America and an international tour that has stops in Stuttgart, Switzerland, Spain, France and Austria. These overlapping shows and venues have compelled the original group to hold massive auditions for talented individuals to become second generation Blue Men (which I will term The Blue Brood 2.0). I set out to speak with one or more of this new Blue Brood 2.0 to see what the whole BMG experience was like.
My first attempt at an interview with the Blue Man Group did not go well at all. The only sounds to be heard on the recording of our “conversation” was my own voice asking astoundingly interesting questions, only to be pelted with marshmallows. Halfway through the tape, one can hear my surprised cries as the trio experimented with the acoustics of my balding pate with a large mallet. They were very courteous hosts, however, as illustrated towards the end of the interview when many Twinkie wrappers can be heard crinkling as they offered me their sole source of sustenance in an act of mute hospitality.
It was my mistake to attempt to speak with them while they were still in character, so I decided on a different course of action. I contacted BMG’s agent and he set up an interview with Marc Roberts, who was once a criminal justice major before quickly switching to theater performance after seeing the Blue Man Group live. Roberts spent over two years auditioning for the group, eventually being selected from an original open casting of over twenty-five hundred applicants.
J.T.: With a casting call of something like 2,500 other people auditioning, what set you apart from the others and what was the process of getting in there?
Oh my gosh! Well, you know, it was just one of those things where I just went in and I was myself and sometimes the stars align. You just happen to be more you than anyone else, I guess. It’s just one of those things. It’s such an indescribable process, the whole audition process. When people asked me what happened, I have to just tell them what specific events happened, like how it happened. I guess I just kept cool under pressure better than the next guy…I don’t know to tell you the truth. They could have just drawn a name out of a hat. Either way, I’m happy I’m happy I’m here.
J.T.: In your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between the theater shows and the arena tours?
Roberts: The challenge is to try and keep the characters as natural as possible. You know, you want to get out here…I mean, I even had that problem going from off-Broadway, which is only about three hundred seats to Vegas, and then from Vegas to a big arena. There’s an intensity that you want to up just because you want to raise the stakes, but at the same time, you want to keep the integrity true. You don’t want to start “miming”. You don’t want to start indicating to people that, “Hmmm! I’m thinking!” as you’re grabbing your chin or holding your head, because, for the most part, if something’s done honestly, it’s read well. We have a huge advantage with the tour because we have a camera and we have three high def screens behind us, so the subtleties like the eyes and stuff that usually wouldn’t transfer, they will now. I would say the biggest challenge for me, to be completely honest with you, is endurance. It is a tiring show. I mean, I’m out of breath, crying by the end of the show, hawking up paint, grabbing for someone while I’m walking off stage because of cramps. It’s embarrassing. That’s my big challenge right now.
J.T.: How hard is it with the arena shows is it to break through “the fourth wall”: to connect with the audience and bring them into the performance?
Roberts: You know, I think with a rock show, it’s a bit easier because people tend to view a rock show with more involvement. There’s more give and take at a rock concert then there would be at a theater performance. When I was at the Astor in New York, it was pretty ridiculous, because you would get a lot of people that wouldn’t know what to expect and they’d be a bit more apprehensive. They wouldn’t want to be looked at. They wouldn’t want to be touched because they want to go to an evening at the theater. I think here, they’re just begging to be involved. I mean, people just run up to the edge of the stage when I break a stick or (when I drop) a stick into the audience, there’s a mad dash to grab it. There’s people running up, grabbing us, taking photos. If anything, it’s kind of scary! You know, there are still only three of us, no matter how big the audience gets, there’s still just the three of us.
J.T.: Well, I know in the beginning, when Chris, Matt and Phil would have meet and greets after the show, they would break character and actually talk, it kind of freaked people out and kind of blew the illusion.
Marc: Well, they’ve never said that we had to stay in character. They’re huge fans of talking about the show. It’s kind of something that we’ve all agreed upon to not talk because for selfish reasons because the instant you talk, you’re going to get people who just want to quiz you like, “How can I do what you do?” “Where does the paint come from?” tell them secrets about the show, you know, “What’s your real name? What’s your phone number?”…that kind of stuff. Then, it’s always like the one person, I feel the one person that I’m going to make really happy by talking is going to be totally counteracted by the fifty other people in line behind them who just want that magic to keep going. They want to believe, with all of their heart, that I’m a “Blue Man”. They know I’m a person, but for the last two hours, they’ve escaped and they just think that there’s this innocent creature out there who just looks at life differently and it just makes them happy and I just want to keep that going. I just want to say that I’m so happy that you’ve…you know, I get a lot of interviews where people just ask me, “Why blue?” or “How long does the make up take?” This is awesome! You know what you’re talking about and I have to say that I really appreciate this.
J.T.: No problem at all. Actually, I wanted to get into some topics, I guess for my own personal interests, that were a little bit deeper. I’ve always been amazed with the group because they are like the perfect outsiders and there’s a duality within the group that these perfect outsiders have somehow connected with the outsider within all of us and have become so popular, so now, the outsiders are popular.
Marc: Yeah, yeah! It’s kind of like the outsiders become the majority and they’ve now become this paradox of the inside. I totally see that. I was definitely drawn to the first show by the fact that there was absolutely no ego. There was the hero aspect of…I mean…I didn’t know what this was, but I was going to go straight towards this and there’s no fear of failure, no fear of looking like a fool and in that aspect, no matter how ridiculous they look, people will just love it, you know?
J.T.: The groups ability to be funny in such a minimalist way with just eye expressions and slight gestures is just amazing.
Roberts: Oh my gosh, yeah. That’s something they teach us. You let the audience write the funniest story. You know, the more you guide them, the more you tell them what’s funny, the less it will be. You try to set up the framework for the joke and they will write the funny punch line for themselves. When they taught me that, and it made my job so much better.
Roberts: The How To Be A Mega Star Tour is like an adapted set list from The Complex Tour. It has the music with the vocals. It has some new stuff and it has a few pieces from the original show that are adapted. I would say, compared to the Vegas show, like 85% to 90% of it’s all new. Don’t be expecting to see too much from the “sit down” shows. One of the great things about being on tour is that it’s an organic experience. With the “sit down” shows, we bring in new stuff every couple of months or every year or so, but the tour is one of those things that they just keep constantly fine-tuning. It’s such an amazing experience to get to be at the front end of all this. You know, you go in and they’re like, “No, no! We’re working on this! We re-wrote this style!”
J.T.: In the beginning, when Chris, Matt and Phil (the creators of BMG) would have meet and greets after the show, they would break character and actually talk, it kind of freaked people out and sort of blew the illusion.
Roberts: Well, they’ve never said that we had to stay in character. They’re huge fans of talking about the show. It’s kind of something that we’ve all agreed upon to not talk because for selfish reasons. I feel the one person that I’m going to make really happy by talking is going to be totally counteracted by the fifty other people in line behind them who just want that magic to keep going. They want to believe, with all of their heart, that I’m a “Blue Man”. They know I’m a person, but for the last two hours, they’ve escaped and they just think that there’s this innocent creature out there who just looks at life differently and it just makes them happy and I just want to keep that going.
J.T.: Is there a fun aspect to the anonymity to it?
Roberts: Oh my gosh! I absolutely love…one of my favorite things stories is, I did this show in Vegas and afterward, I was cleaned up and left, and usually it takes about thirty to forty-five minutes to take the make-up off and take a shower and we talk about the show every single night. So, I’m leaving, walking through the casino this time, and I see a girl that was in the show with me (who was) a featured guest. In the meet and greet, we sign (autographs) by giving kisses and she happened to ask for one on the cheek. I never say no and I’m always willing to go with it on genuine emotion, so I give her a peck on the cheek. Well, I saw her afterward with all her friends and I just wanted to hear what she would say, so I stop and was eavesdropping and she caught me! She gave me this look, like, “Get away from me you weirdo!” and I’m laughing to myself because part of me wanted to be like, “You do realize that I was with you.” but I didn’t want to ruin it. I didn’t want to make her experience become real, as much as it was a fantasy. As much as it was that experience, I didn’t want to then put my face with it and get her weirded out, you know. So, I absolutely love that aspect. I get to put the mask of a “super star” on. I get to put that mask on, but I’m not that…I’m still just Marc Roberts.
There is an idiosyncratic, paradoxical dualism to the Blue Man Group. These utilitarian homologues are the perfect outsiders that, through their naïve view of the world and their use of subtle gestures and bombastic rhythms, reveal to us the underlying complexities that make us truly human, thereby making the perfect outsiders one of the most wildly popular acts in the world. Even within their own small group of three, one of the members can, from time to time, become an outsider themselves by reacting differently then their abnormal norm.