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True Blue to an Artistic Vision

From the start, Blue Man Group thought hard about what it was and wasn't. That's how the founders have come so far without selling out.

March 04, 2001|MIMI AVINS | Mimi Avins is a Times staff writer

Dustin Hoffman assured his then-12-year-old son, one New York evening in 1993, that going to see Blue Man Group would be fun. Photos on the marquee of the NoHo theater were compelling enough--an alienoid creature staring out through big, curious eyes. Passersby who didn't know any more than the Hoffmans about what an evening of music and comedy offered by a trio of bald, blue men might be, would look and wonder: Who is Blue Man, why is he here and what does he want?

Hoffman, father and son, decided to find out. They descended into a tiny cave of a theater where three performance artists had fashioned an unlikely off-Broadway hit out of splattering paint, homemade percussion instruments, Hostess Twinkies and a smorgasbord of notions that explore and satirize the significance of art and technology.

"Jake didn't want to go," Hoffman remembers. "He was afraid he was going to get hit withChekhov or something. It turned out to be like an acid trip in first grade that happens when the teacher leaves the room."

After the 90-minute show, the Hoffmans went backstage to meet the Blue Men--Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink. Once they'd removed their makeup and latex skullcaps, the performers engaged their L.A. visitors in a rambling four-hour discussion of the problem that has intrigued them from the beginning: How do you achieve global commercial domination and not lose your soul?

The question hadn't exactly been verbalized 13 years ago, when three friends in their late 20s first covered their heads with blue paint and staged guerrilla theater skits on Manhattan sidewalks. But Blue Man Group was just a goof then, the kernel of an idea that would later pop bigger, tastier and louder than Goldman, Stanton and Wink ever imagined. Today Blue Man Group Productions is a thriving theatrical conglomerate with a staff of 473, companies performing in New York, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas, and an annual operating budget of $28 million.

So the dilemma of maintaining artistic integrity that they considered with Hoffman nearly eight years ago in the dank catacombs beneath the Astor Place Theater, is more relevant than ever. They aren't earnest young hopefuls anymore. Last month, they performed for the Grammy Awards TV audience, estimated at more than 55 million.

How the indigo triumvirate went from the fringes of New York's underground art scene to a 1,200-seat showroom at the Luxor in Las Vegas, a Grammy nomination for best pop instrumental album and national exposure via a clever batch of TV commercials for Intel is a remarkable story. Not just because the founders journeyed from obscurity to fame. The miracle is that they got there without sacrificing their vision.

Their achievement is all the more impressive, since Blue Man Group could have gone wrong more times than a Blue Man has fingers and toes. The three original Blues (there are now 33, including a female Blue Man in Boston) never lost sight of how important it was that their creation--this baby, wise man, alien, everyman--not turn into a philistine.

"By definition, an actor has to have a job to practice his craft," Hoffman says. "These guys had somehow beaten that hurdle. Picasso expressed what they did. At one point, he said, 'If they took away all my paints, I'd use pastels, if they took away my pastels, I'd use crayons, if they took away my crayons, I'd use a pencil. If they put me in a cell, and stripped me of everything, I'd spit on my finger and draw on the wall.' And that's what I thought Blue Man Group had accomplished. 'You can't stop me' seemed to be the subtext of what they were doing. 'I can stand in the middle of the street and cover myself with paint and I will perform.' "

*

The first public Blue Men sighting occurred in 1988. Nine men and women who'd met at informal salon gatherings put on blueface and staged a funeral for the '80s in Central Park, to annihilate such annoyances as yuppies, cocaine and postmodern architecture. They solemnly threw artifacts of the period into a coffin that served as an anti-time capsule.

Goldman and Wink, now 39 and 40, had been best buddies since junior high school. When they met Stanton, now 41, after college, they discovered they all yearned to be the art world's Ben & Jerry.

If you were a software producer with an MBA (as Goldman was) or a drummer and aspiring actor (as Stanton was) and found yourself in conversation with someone who also devoured high and low culture as voraciously as peanuts, you'd revel in the company of a kindred spirit. So with Wink--a drummer who paid the rent by synopsizing articles for a Japanese magazine and then took a job as a waiter for a catering company--they pondered how they could pursue their diverse interests and still make a living.

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