New York is the theater capital of America. Shows on and off Broadway come and go, but for two and a half decades, the Blue Man Group has been a staple at the Astor Place Theatre in Manhattan.
And according to the group’s founders, these strange blue men tell us a lot about ourselves and our evolving times, reports CBS News contributor Jamie Wax.
It’s a show unlike anything else in town, located two-and-a-half miles south of New York’s Broadway theater district.
For the last 25 years, three men painted in blue have been giving this eye-popping, mind-bending performance, using the unlikeliest of props, like marshmallows and PVC pipes, to wow the crowd.
“How did you even come up with the idea of creating instruments like this?” Wax asked.
“Well we just love the sounds of tubes when you hit them. There is actually no overtone; it doesn’t sound like a xylophone in that kind of wooden or metal way,” said Chris Wink, one of the three founding members.
‘When we started out, we were really interested in kind of asking through this project, through the character, kind of what’s essentially human,” said Phil Stanton, another founder.
“I didn’t feel like I had a tribe. I fit in everywhere,” Wink said. “But I felt on the inside like I fit in just about as much as a bald and blue guy.”
They started as street performers in the consumer-driven 1980s. And with the help of co-founder Matt Goldman, a singular character began to develop.
“We instinctively wanted Blue Man to be universal,” Stanton said. “We wanted it to feel like he was not from any particular nation or culture or race or anything.”
“We didn’t know we were creating a show actually, but what we were really doing was doing what the Marx Brothers did, which is we were developing pieces that would later become the signature pieces in our show,” Wink said.
“At what point does it become viable and something that you realize you’re going to be, will be doing for a long time?” Wax asked.
“Well, it was all kind of a series of accidents. We would do a performance as a guest at someone else’s show, and the next thing you know, they asked us to do a full show,” Stanton said. “I said, ‘Well, we don’t have that much material, but we will see what we can do. So at a certain point we had enough material that it was a show and we said, ‘All right, let’s do this.’”
The idea of a silent trio of blue men performing oddball tricks and satirizing culture confused some at first. The founders spoke with Charlie Rose back in 1992.
“All the great technology that people were coming up with, the sole purpose of keeping people in their apartments with their VCRs and fax machines and everything,” Stanton told Rose. “So we -- our sensibility is about people getting together and not being isolated.”
“What it does for us is it allows us to be an outsider in a mundane world,” Wink said. “It’s a familiar technique you know, a mermaid, a Martian, a brother from another planet.”
The show is constantly evolving to keep up with the times. While the earliest versions tackled the just-emerging issue of information overload, it now incorporates giant smart devices, or GiPads, vying for the audience’s attention.
“We’re curious about the phenomenon of a global connection but yet the kind of a loss of the tribe. We’re all about moving forward into the future and into, you know, innovation and all that,” Wink said. “But there’s a few things from our ancient past that we need to bring with us. And so if you’ll notice at our show, there’s a vibe kind of in a weird way with all this weird, modern stuff happening, but it’s probably similar in our minds to being around the campfire in the hunter-gatherer period. You know, in the cave... just playing some drums and just grooving because that’s kind of in our DNA.”
As its profile grew, the Blue Man Group got bigger. The show would expand to seven locations around the world from Las Vegas to Berlin, which meant there needed to be more blue men able to perform.
“How did you go about casting other blue men?” Wax asked.
“I don’t think we could envision at first that other people can and should play the character,” Stanton said.
“And it was actually an incredible infusion of energy for us because we stopped talking about our-- there wasn’t ‘my’ version of the blue man or Phil’s. It was, you know, ‘the’ blue man,” Wink said.
They now hold tryouts around the world. The CBS News team visited the first audition for one group in August. Andy Talen and Stefan Rueh had been training to be blue men for two months.
“How does it feel to be coming into this group of performers?” Wax asked.
“It’s pretty special. I mean, it’s a long process,” Talen said. “It’s an eight-week process, sort of a graduate school kind of class, in the character and the performance. And it feels like an honor.”
Rueh first auditioned four years ago in Berlin. Both are now performing in shows.
“In the end of the show, you’re just thinking, ‘That’s my job.’ That’s just like really fun,” Rueh said.
“There’s just hours and hours of discussion around the training because it’s a subtle thing,” Wink said. “If someone is too quirky, too other, or too funny, it doesn’t work. But if someone is too dead, it doesn’t have any life force, it doesn’t have any charisma to it. It loses its profundity. It’s a very sophisticated kind of balancing act that gets to a very simple but very soulful performance.”
This week, the Empire State Building paid homage to their blue empire for a night. But Chris Wink and Phil Stanton hope their experiment would be around for decades more to come.
“Our test is, what do the 15-year-olds, the 18-, the 22-year-olds think when they come to the show? We don’t want it to be their parents’ show, you know?” Wink said. “We want it to be a show that resonates to them.”
“It’s like half of it is timeless and half of it is like a snapshot, you know, and you have to keep taking the picture,” Stanton said. “The change that happens, we could see all that in real time. It’s almost more interesting to play around with what’s going to remain the same, you know? What’s essentially human.”
“We’re betting on drumming by a campfire,” Stanton said.
Stanton and Wink said they actually practiced the marshmallow-throwing trick when they were just waiters. The chef got a kick out of it and would throw food at them to catch with their mouths.
If you want to know more about the origins and evolution of the Blue Man, you can find out more in the group’s new book released last month, called “Blue Man World.”