How We Did It: The Blue Man Group
In 1988, three young guys in New York City -- an acting student, a magazine researcher, and a software producer -- were so happy to see the end of the 1980s, they held a funeral for the decade. They painted their faces blue and led a procession through Central Park; they burned a Rambo doll and a piece of the Berlin Wall. Although they couldn't have known it, Chris Wink, Phil Stanton, and Matt Goldman had launched what would grow into an entertainment juggernaut. Since opening in New York City's Astor Place Theatre in 1991, the Blue Man Group has played in 12 cities across the globe. More than 17 million people have seen its shows, and today, tickets go for $43 to $132. Goldman, the onetime computer geek turned impresario, tells the Blue Man Group's unlikely story.
As Told to Liz Welch
The Blue Man character is about universal human truths. When we got bald and blue for the first time, we knew instantly that we were on to something really special. It's not like we sat down and came up with a business plan and followed it from Point A to Point B to Point C.
We played P.S. 122, La MaMa, all these hip, arty venues before we opened at the Astor Place Theatre. So some in the downtown art crowd thought we were selling out. But the work didn't change. In the beginning, the house was half empty, and we were undercapitalized. We'd show up at the theater expecting a padlock on the door. I set up my office -- a telephone, pen, and pad -- directly opposite the box office. When I saw someone leave the box office without a ticket, I'd run out and start chatting him or her up. I wasn't going to let him or her walk away without buying a ticket.
We made all the props ourselves. We found PVC pipe on Canal Street and turned it into musical instruments. But the Jell-O in the show cost $880 a show to make. So our producers said, "Lose the Jell-O." Phil and Chris were working at the time for Jean-Claude Nédélec, who co-owns Glorious Food, the catering company. We told him our sad story, and he said, "We'll make the Jell-O." For three years, Chris and I would take a cab to the Upper East Side to pick up giant Jell-O molds and never paid a cent for it.
We went from six to eight shows a week and did 1,285 consecutive shows. We were sold out eight weeks in advance, but our producer got panicky at the thought of one of us getting sick, so we had one understudy. We never canceled a show. But then Phil cut his hand, and Chris Bowen, our extra, got bald and blue for the first time. It was fine. He's now our senior performing director.
We realized that if we wanted to grow, we'd have to replicate ourselves. We cast three Blue Men, opened in Boston, and assumed it would go well. But there was no script, no musical score. It was a case study of the wrong way to grow. We realized we had to articulate our vision, so we locked ourselves in a room and spent several days writing the Blue Man manual.
The Blue Man is part innocent, hero, scientist, shaman, group member, and trickster. He doesn't speak, but he communicates with vaudevillian slapstick humor. He drums and catches gumballs in his mouth that are filled with paint, which he spits onto a canvas to make art. It's interactive, with music, lights, and lots of colorful liquids that get sprayed on the stage and into the audience.
The whole show is about connecting with the audience -- to get to that heightened gestalt when someone scores a goal at a soccer game. That "AHHH!" There's no intellect involved at all, just chemical secretions through one's brain and body.
Three is the smallest unit where you can have an outsider; two guys win the third over, or the third guy wins the two guys in. It can go either way, and that tension makes for good theater. It also makes for good business partners -- it takes the ego out of it. To this day, we've never made a decision based on the majority. All decisions are consensus. It takes longer, but we find if you keep talking things through, you reach a better choice.
We decided to open in Chicago. Before the show, we realized we had no idea how much money we needed. We called the general manager of the Boston show, who is now our CFO, and she did the numbers. To make payroll, we had to open three days early and do two shows a day. We figured, no one is going to know that the whole set could fall apart. They'll just think, Oh, the Blue Men; they're crazy. From Chicago we moved on to Las Vegas and later Orlando.
Vegas was a gamble. The theater had twelve hundred seats. We did 10 shows a week, but for the first six months, the theater was half empty. Lots of companies had come to us, wanting to do Blue Man ads. We turned them all down. But when Intel asked for the fourth time, we said, "Let's talk."
They said, "We want to get across that Intel is innovative, intelligent, and fun." We liked that but said, "The ad agency is going to do lame storyboards." So they gave us signing-off approval. Then we said, "The music is going to be really bad," and they said, "You can make the music!"
That was in 2000. It was one of the biggest ad buys at the time: The ads were shown at the Grammy Awards, the basketball playoffs, the World Series. Every month, a new one aired. We went from 10 shows a week at 50 percent capacity to 14 shows at 100 percent.
Then we went international. Germany is the second-biggest entertainment market in the world for theater, so we started there. It felt appropriate, because when we did the funeral for the '80s, we burned the Berlin Wall, and then it actually came down. So we felt personally responsible. We've had shows in Amsterdam and London. Today, we're in Stuttgart and Tokyo.
We have about 70 Blue Men on the payroll. They're hard to find. A lot of them trained in theater or are good drummers. We have a casting director and hold national auditions. Our Blue Men train in New York before we ship them out to our shows in other cities.
If you invent your own instrument, you're automatically one of the top three musicians in the world on that instrument. We have made up more than 30 instruments, like the tubulum, the drumulum, and the piano smasher. I can barely hold my own musically, and yet I get to be a rock star. We made several albums; one was nominated for a Grammy.
We created a school in New York with an arts-based curriculum. It's called the Blue Man Creativity Center. We have 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds. Next year is our first kindergarten. We're growing a grade a year. This year, we had 200 applications for 30 spaces.
Some people think that when we get bald and blue that we're just hiding behind a mask. But we think it's the opposite. When you get blue, you're left with just the purest, most vulnerable humanity. And so, about halfway through the show, people start to go, "Whoa, I'm the Blue Man." And once you get there, you wonder, Are there actually three different characters, or is it three aspects of one personality, so together they're one character? Those are exactly the questions we want people to be asking.