In 1988, one of the more unusual things a visitor to dirty, dangerous Manhattan would have seen was a trio of blue-painted, black-clad bald men parading around the East Village, doing performance art.
“It was a strange time because there was no music or theater scene. It was the time of Reaganomics and yuppies,” recalls Matt Goldman, who co-founded Blue Man Group with friends Chris Wink and Phil Stanton. Wink and Stanton were working as caterers; Goldman was a software developer.
The trio originally began meeting to share interesting and exciting things they had seen, heard and found in the city. They took their act — the origins of which they prefer to keep shrouded in mystery to maintain the mystique of its brand — to the streets, doing stunts like tossing and catching rubber balls with their mouths.
“The only way to describe it is the blue man found us,” says Goldman, who, like his partners, rarely performs anymore. “In the earliest days we would walk around looking for like-minded people. Some would pretend to not see us…and some would come up to us and say, ‘That’s really cool.'”
Those street performances led to gigs at local clubs. The early shows had no music behind them. After realizing the act needed a beat, the group began making its own instruments, a practice that continues. “The blue man is about connecting and creating. When you first see the blue man, you think he’s a strange being, and then you realize you’re watching yourself. He’s the purest expression of humanity,” says Goldman.
In 1991, the group rented the Astor Place Theatre, a 300-seat venue in the East Village, for its show Tubes/Rewired. From there the show has expanded to include casts in Boston, Chicago, Berlin and Tokyo, among other cities. The latest production began in February in Stuttgart, Germany.
In early March the group announced a partnership with Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based airline. The blue men’s faces are to appear on the side of the airplanes, blue handprints on the inside hull, and the flight attendants will sell tickets to Las Vegas performances.
In exchange, those shows will feature an Allegiant airplane exterior on stage and an Allegiant VIP room. The carrier will receive a commission on show tickets sold on its Web site and in the air. “From their perspective, they are co-branding with someone who is fun, intelligent and high quality, and they send their customers to a show,” Goldman says.
There have been some bumps in th road to becoming a theatrical juggernaut. Blue Man Group generally does not use union workers, and when a show opened in Toronto in 2005, it was beset by guild picketers. It closed after only 18 months. Blue Man Group is also involved in a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over Las Vegas stagehands’ efforts to unionize. The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and a ruling is expected soon. “We wanted the whole crew to have an opportunity to vote, and the local wanted only part of the crew to vote. That’s what is before the court,” says Goldman.
Along the way, the troupe starred in three campaigns for Intel in 2000 and 2004 by then-agency Euro RSCG MVBMS. Did the group ever worry about being labeled sellouts? “We went around to everyone single person in the company at the time and asked them what they thought,” Goldman says. “What we came to was if the spots were very good or above we would be glad to have the opportunity to do a 25-second Blue Man short. If it was short of very good, then we would regret it forever.”