For a show-business entity that defies simple descriptions, Blue Man Group has enjoyed a remarkable ride.
Nobody could have predicted that an oddball show called “Tubes” with three silent blue-faced performers that opened in 1991 at the 300-seat Astor Place Theatre in New York would become what it is: a global entertainment concern.
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Not only does the music-and-color-filled show continue in New York, it has long-running productions in Chicago and Boston, permanent productions in Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas, and last year began performing on a cruise ship, the Norwegian Epic.
All this for a show that some called performance art in its earliest incarnation. Or maybe a parody of performance art. It was a show that always seemed to reflect an arch, intellectual sheen while entertaining audiences with the broadest humor possible.
“You’ve got to appreciate things that go splat and squish in the night, and it helps to like the thunder of drums, kettle and bass,” wrote David Richards for The New York Times in his review of the original show in 1991. “If you do, you’re apt to find ‘Tubes’ as exhilarating as it is intrepid. I enjoyed it as much as I did finger painting as a child, which is a great deal. In fact, much of the time, Blue Man Group made me feel like a goggle-eyed kid again, which is why I say the intellectual view of things is sort of missing the boat, or at least the show’s sheer, visceral fun.”
Earlier this year, Elisabeth Vincentelli, the New York Post’s drama critic, checked on several long-running shows in New York, including Blue Man: “The longest-running off-Broadway show may have evolved, but its older routines still rule, and they rely heavily on eating stuff, spitting stuff and throwing stuff. It’s high-concept clowning, basically, and it’s heaps of fun.”
Created, written and originally performed by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, the explanation for Blue Man Group’s broad popularity may be the seeming anonymity of the three interchangeable performers audiences see in any version of the show, including the tour set to open Tuesday at the Music Hall. The actors are at once unknowable and recognizable, like silent-screen pantomime artists.
“You can see our entire progression because the shows haven’t closed,” said creative director Michael Quinn, who has been with the group almost 20 years. “So it would be like having the ability to go see the Rolling Stones, if I can so humbly make the comparison, in, like, a little 500-person club and then go see them in an arena somewhere. People can do that. They can come see us where we started or they can see us in an arena or a big theater in Vegas.”
Quinn said that as the show evolves, new material is incorporated. But many of the old routines remain.
“We think of ourselves more like a rock band than we do a show,” he said. “When you go see the Rolling Stones when they come through town, you expect if they have a new record out you’re gonna hear tracks off the new record, but you’re also gonna hear the old favorites.
“We put together the best body of work we have at that moment. What’s coming to you guys is actually an interesting combination. Some people have been calling it the ‘greatest hits.’ But I wouldn’t call it that, because 40 or 50 percent of it is new stuff.”
Still, Quinn said the desires of repeat viewers are important.
“There are certain pieces we have to do,” he said. “If we don’t do the piece where they splash paint on drums, we hear about it. So what you guys are gonna see is the most state-of-the-art production we have in the world today.”
These days, according to Quinn, there are dozens of blue men in the world.
“There are four blue men that travel (together), and they rotate so one guy has a night off every night,” he said. “I don’t think the audience will ever realize what a giant advantage that is because they don’t realize how hard it is to slog out a show on the road.
“We have a constant flow of fresh performers to keep the show alive. There are probably 75 blue men active around the world right now. There are a bunch that are ‘retired,’ but they aren’t really retired because we still use them sometimes.
“The three original guys are still around. They still perform periodically. We have people whose bodies just couldn’t handle it anymore. And we have guys who don’t perform shows on a nightly basis, but we use them for television appearances.”
And why blue? There was no conceptual motivation behind the color choice, Quinn says. One of the creators had the idea of doing a blue character. The first time the group performed was in New York’s Central Park, and there were 14 or 15 blue men onstage. And they spoke.
“They realized they weren’t as interesting as they thought they could be,” he said. “So they stopped talking after that. When you think about it, there really is no other color it could be.”
Quinn went down the list: green, people think Martian; yellow, jaundice; red, the devil.
“Blue is calm, perfect,” he said. “The only other color that might have worked was lavender, but even that has a connotation. All the other colors are going to make you think about something we didn’t want you to think about.”
The show, with no real narrative and an aggressive sense of humor, seems to strike a chord with kids and adults alike. In that way, it invites comparison with Cirque du Soleil.
“I would love for us to claim that this was the plan, but I think the key to our success is that we’re dealing with some universal things here. We actually had some demographic work at one point many years ago. They came back and said, ‘Your demographic appears to be somewhere between 5 and 83.’
“At heart we’re comedians, but the comedy always comes as a surprise to people because they think it’s much heavier than that.”
Ultimately, Quinn implied, the show is what viewers decide it is.
“I think we work on a bunch of levels, but when we are successful, our work can be appreciated on a purely visceral, almost primal level. You can enjoy the drums and the music and the color.
“Whereas, if you come and have a little more of an intellectual cap on and think about the deeper meaning, you can do that, too. We don’t want to get preachy about it. Our number one fear is that people think we take ourselves too seriously.”