Friday, April 15, 2011

Kind of Blue (Part 1)

Dear Dale,

Sorry about the long delay between posts.  You don't deserve to be treated like this, and I of all people should know better.  Still, I'm hoping you might find it worth it when you see what I have in store for you today.

You see, Dale, some time ago I attended an open audition for the Blue Man Group.  Shortly thereafter, I was flown out to New York City by the world-renowned company itself to partake in final callbacks.  While I did not end up getting cast (disappointing, I know), the whole adventure did make for one hell of a story, and it is to that end that I present to you the following: part one of a sizable two-part travelogue reccounting my exciting voyage up to the very cusp of blue-faced fame.

I'm not sure when part two will be written (hopefully soon), but at least this will give you something to chew on for a while.  In any case, I know you were looking foward to a drastically overwritten focus-piece chock full of puns and wordy asides, so on that I am proud to deliver.  So without further ado, I present...

Kind of Blue

By Mike Salomon

I do not sufficiently engage with my audience when mashing imaginary Captain Crunch on my face.  No, I’m not just making this up, nor am I broadcasting it out of any self-deprecating stab at humility.  It is a true and proven critique, as evidenced by its pronouncement by a tattooed 40-year-old of average height and build, who makes his living painting himself into an indigo automaton and rhythmically walloping a trash can.  This simple fact is also an explanation as to why I am not now, nor may ever be a member of the Blue Man Group.  While certainly a shame, this is by no means the worst rejection I have ever suffered (a title currently shared by Brown University, the 1999 Fenn School Junior Varsity Baseball Team, and the casting agency behind M Night Shymalan’s The Sixth Sense).  Perhaps more importantly, the wild journey that brought me to the recognition of this particular personal inadequacy is by all means worth a good recounting.  So go ahead and get all the Tobias Funke references out of your system, pop in an Eifel 65 CD, and prepare yourself for the tale of one man’s quest to join a ranks whose flesh-tones reside within a greater-wavelengthed segment of the visual light spectrum.  Also, if you’re sitting in the front two rows, make sure you have a poncho.

1.       Dream (When You’re Feeling Blue)

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  My dream is pretty much the exact opposite of this.  I want to be judged by the color of my skin – specifically, the color blue.  I want to festoon my flesh in latex enamel, don myself a bald cap, and traipse around a stage, tattooing paint-splattered rudiments on a garbage bin or ingesting Twinkies to comedic effect. 
Ever since I first heard tell of the family-friendly theatrical extravaganza, I have harbored a deep desire to join the rhythmic ranks of the Blue Men.  In part, this is due to my overlapping passions for (and training in) percussion and theatre.  Other than BMG and STOMP, few opportunities exist for a dancing drummer with acting experience to engage all three avenues in performative fashion (at least until Broadway picks up my one man show, Mike Salomon Presents: Shuffle and Roll).
Another component of my Blue Man affinity derives from my adoration of its random comedy and tongue and cheek absurdism – and I don’t just mean the bits within the show: more-so the entire company’s existence in and of itself.  I mean, how crazy is it that three dudes shellacking themselves into cerulean Moby-clones and tossing marshmallows into one another’s mouths became a legitimate cultural phenomenon.  For two decades and counting.  That’s longer than jean-shorts made it!  In a way, Blue Man Group speaks to every sensibility I embrace as an artist: silly but smart, abstract yet accessible, so ludicrous in its conception it isn’t hard to wonder why it exists in the first place – yet so deliberate in its execution that anyone who’s seen it instantly comes to terms with its overachievement.  It is performance art, pop art, satire and postmodernism all rolled into one.  As someone who drafts Shakespearean sagas about Lebron James and choreographs tap-dance routines to a cappella renditions of the Rocky III theme, is it any wonder that I should view the Blue Man Group as my destined higher-calling?  In art, as in life, sometimes the craziest choices just make the most sense.
My last and shallowest reason for my true blue aspirations is the opportunity to become what amounts to a living, breathing conversation piece.  Let’s be honest, how great would it be just to tell people that I was a Blue Man?  Between bragging rights for my Jewish mother (“Oh?  Your son’s an oncologist?  Mine’s a Blue Man!”), an awesome tidbit to bring to high-school reunions (“Remember when you turned me down for a date in tenth grade?  I guess you really blue it!”), and an endless supply of stand-out pickup lines (“Once you go blue, that’s all that you’ll do!”), the notion of simply holding the active title of “Blue Man” is enough to leave me drooling.
This obsessive mindset is no recent acquisition either.  Thanks to the widespread cultural pervasion of the company (according to Wikipedia, some of Blue Man Group’s more notable credits include guest spots on Guiding Light, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Dr. Phil, and Scrubs; performances with the Boston Pops and Ricky Martin; a Pentium advertising campaign; and of course, their stellar Arrested Development turn), I had grounds to amass my enthusiasm long before I had even managed to catch a performance in person.  When I finally did make my way to Boston’s Charles Playhouse to take in a showing of their 15+ year run of “Tubes/Rewired,” it only served to bolster my already-fanatic zest.  By then I was halfway through college, well on my way to a degree in theatre and with two years’ experience crafting dramatic, rhythm-based performance-art for a campus tap-dance troop.  Though the rational part of me still knew my vision of bluemanship to be nothing more than a pipe dream, it became an ardent and committed pipe dream: a secret passion and lingering hope.
Seeing the show in person also served to affirm my assumed possession of the basic skill-set necessary for becoming a Blue Man in the first place.  Be aware that I do not mean to sound presumptuous about my talents, nor do I imply that the role of Blue Man is an easy one to undertake (as I recently learned, this is not only far from the case, but I, in particular, am under-equipped for so lofty an accomplishment).  Nevertheless, on a fundamental level, the core BMG aptitudes seem far more within the layman’s reach than those of say, Cirque du Soleil or Riverdance (requiring an absurd level of acrobatic prowess for one, the ability to look like an asshole – and also probably to step-dance – for the other).  My viewing experience only solidified the notion that the key prerequisites of the Blue Man trade were little more than an inherent sense of rhythm, a capable stage presence (basically the ability not to break a smile), and an artillery of assumable human tricks (i.e. catching two-dozen Stay-Puffs in one’s mouth).  Believing myself to have the first two bases pretty well-covered and the third within easy reach brought a dash of realism to the fantasy that over time kept it smoldering beneath the surface even as I leant my focus to alternative pursuits.
So it is, in the years since that dash was added, its flavor has only sizzled and spread, cleaving “pipe” from afore “dream” and imbuing my ambitions with a newfound air of possibility.  Nowadays the notion of achieving such an outcome seems less a sentiment of frivolous whimsy (like my hope to one day quarterback the New England Patriots) and much more a legitimate and attainable objective (like my hope to one day quarterback the Chicago Bears).  So does the blue blood jettison its way through all my veins, commanding my passionate heart, as all the while a disembodied voice whispers “why the hell not?” into my ear.  And indeed, rhetorically passive-aggressive voice: why the hell not?

2.       Blue Monday

Whether it was her knowledge of those very aspirations or her own assessment of my career potential that inspired her actions, I do not know, but in November of 2010, I received an email from my excited mother alerting me to an upcoming Chicago-based Blue Man open call.  It was as though a pair of latexed blue hands had pattered out a drum-roll on the PVC piping of my heart.  A deluge of rekindled passions came flooding into the forefront of my mind.  A dream that had once seemed a lifetime away was now hovering at arm’s reach.  Why the hell not?
At the time I was three months into a painstaking (and largely futile) job-search, having jumped ship from Manhattan to the Windy City a season prior in order to focus on writing in a calmer (and less expensive) area code.  Despite my best efforts and intentions, I was going broke, my roommate was booking it for California, and I was in danger of losing my apartment in his absence.  I was single, depressed and a self-imposed recluse.  In other words, this was the perfect occasion lifetime-wise to thrust myself headlong into a fantastical pursuit of some unrealized ambition.  True, my acting career had long been abandoned (my last legitimate audition had been three years prior, during my junior year of college – and the one before that, during my junior year of high school), and I had not touched a pair of drum sticks in six months, but here was an opportunity practically hurling itself at me like a drunken prom date: “come on, take advantage of me.  Do it!  You know you want to.”
Untethered by any practical constraints, I acquiesced to my urges, slapped together a (largely hyperbolic) performance resume, PhotoShopped a picture my father had taken into something vaguely headshot-esque, and submitted my materials to the Blue Man casting office.   I was rewarded several days later with an email announcing my 4 PM Monday audition slot at a Blue Man rehearsal space just down the road from their Chicago company’s Briar Street home.  The whole ordeal would take no more than twenty minutes, the email said, and would involve some basic drumming and acting drills.  I did not need to bring anything and could wear whatever comfortable clothing I so desired (no need to blue myself prematurely either).  This was it.  In a matter of days, my once-shuttered ambitions would be setting out from the station.  Everything, it seemed, was falling into perfect place.
Everything, that is, except for one small detail: my height. 
In the annals Blue Man showmanship, there is but one particular conceit whose adherence seems an inarguable requisite: all the Blue Men must look pretty much alike.  Obviously short of solely casting sets of monozygotic triplets, this is impossible, but decorating the performers in bald-caps, blue shells, and bulky, paint-spewing sweat-shirts seems to iron out most of their distinctive wrinkles (literally and figuratively).  The head-to-heel length of a Blue Man, however, is not so easily masked and thus becomes an integral element in the hiring process (or so I would imagine).  More specifically, the Blue Man Group casting website lists the minimum height requirement for a prospective auditioner as 5’10”.  I am 5’9”.
At its surface, this did not seem like such a big deal.  If Mugsy Bogues could face off against Michael Jordan and Tom Cruise could boast an acting career that didn’t consist of playing hobbits and Napoleon Bonapartes, what difference could one measly inch possibly make in the grand scheme of a musical stage show?  (Though try asking that of any 5’5” aspiring Rockette and watch the heartbreak well up in her wee little eyes.)  The problem for me was that I did not know if my height would prove a detrimental factor, and were I to ask, supposing that it was an issue, I would have given myself away as an undersized applicant.  On account of all this, I had lied on my performance resume, stretching myself to their 70 inch mark and listing my weight as a decidedly average (but rather inflated) 165 pounds.
Such a ploy, however, was a poorly devised one.  Now I would be forced to present myself in person, and were I made to line up beside other (and more vertically merited) potential Blue Men or even sized against the active cast members who I presumed would be leading the auditions, the gig would be up.  I was forced to seize upon the only logical option: wearing my most thickly-soled hiking boots and stuffing the heels with paper towels.   The result was both uncomfortable and unwieldy, but granted me my requisite inch and then some.  At very least, I reckoned this would nudge me toward the brighter side of any decision-making bubbles.  Also I got to feel tall for a day – a win/win if I’d ever heard one.
So it was, my boots bursting with two-ply, that I made my way to the 3100 block of Halstead Street that I might meet my first challenge on the road to Blue-dition.  Though I’d spent the week preparing myself by Youtubing clips of Blue Man routines and mimicking their drum-work, my heart was still pounding in my throat as I stepped into the neighborhood falafel shack and took a seat at the nearest booth.  (It’s probably worth my mention that the Blue Man Group rehearsal space happened to be an apartment upstairs of a Middle-Eastern takeout joint called Eat-a-Pita.  The email had instructed that the restaurant was to be used as a waiting room.  I’ll note that there’s nothing quite like the wafting aromas of chick-peas and schwarma to compliment the sphincter-cinching nervousness of a pre-audition wait.)
Shrugging off my sudden craving for humus, I looked about, spotted a pair of similarly sized young gents sitting anxiously at foodless tables and reckoned myself in the proper location. Sure enough, within minutes, a representative descended from a stairwell, handed me an audition sheet and summoned one of my fellows. Twenty minutes later he was swapped out for his companion, and fifteen after this, I heard my own name called.  With a deep breath, I gathered my belongings and climbed the stairs behind my petite brunette Charon.
Rather than the open studio space I expected, I found myself entering the living-room of a poorly furnished two-bedroom apartment.  To the right, a kitchenette was tucked behind a long, wooden dining-room table; to the left, a lone sofa had been shoved against the wall, where sat a pair of un-costumed Blue Men (or so I presumed) who welcomed me as my hostess plopped herself down beside them. So unassuming, the entire setup was, that for a moment I found myself caught completely off-guard.  From the undecorated living space in which I stood, to the nonchalant appearance of the plain-clothed Blue Men themselves (who I’ll note were not bug-eyed and bald-headed androidians, but rather as average looking as they come) this seemed in no way a stronghold of a multi-million-dollar, international theatrical juggernaut.  Nevertheless I doffed my satchel and braced myself for their gauntlet as, introductions made, we launched immediately into the meat of the main event.
First came drumming.  Following a brief Q-and-A regarding my percussive experience (nearly a decade of set, mallet, and hand – boy did I look good on paper), I was led across the room to a free-standing, plastic practice-pad, by which one of the Blue Men shoved a pair of sticks into my hand and proceeded to lead me through a series of rudimentary exercises.  Though I worried whether the nervous tension now permeating my every muscle fiber would serve to shatter all semblance of rhythmic integrity, I swallowed hard and hunkered down as he would first play a pattern himself, then bid me join in, and then drop out: leaving the beat and tempo solely in my hands.   In theory this could have proven a challenge, yet despite my initial unease the drill fast became a veritable walk in the park, as his patterns limited themselves to mere single strokes, double strokes, and a pair of accent combinations pulled straight from my preemptive Youtube studies. Needless to say, my anxieties quickly diminished as I found myself near-acing my percussive appraisal.  In fact, excepting a request that I employ a more taiko-styled approach to my play (basically just grander arm movements for each drum stroke – a stylistic, rather than technical note), I garnered naught but praise and affirmation for my rhythmic prowess.
A proven success in my stick-work, I returned to the foot of the couch, where Blue Man #2 rose to lead me through a pair of brief and bizarre acting drills.  The first had me entering the room as an Old Western gunslinger sidling into a saloon.  Once “onstage” I was to (without speaking) recognize the posse who had done in my brother (the two Blue Men and their assistant), ready myself to settle the score, come to the sudden realization I had forgotten my gun, and make my fast escape.  Suffice to say there’s little worth imparting in regards to my execution of so straightforward a premise (besides which, I can think of few things more tedious than a step-by-step, first-person account of an acting exercise – cough cough Constanstin Stanislavski cough cough).  I will, however, note that the still-lingering aftershock of my pre-percussive nervousness leant what felt like a splendid authenticity to my character’s assessment of his endangerment, and my natural physicality generated a pseudo-rigid stillness that met with further commendation from the corner of the room.
The final exercise was even simpler than its predecessor: a game of Meisnerian influence in which my instructor and I stood three feet apart, repeating the word, “yes,” back and forth, while taking our dramatic cues off one another’s particular intonations and expressions.  This was then redone, minus the verbiage, engaging us in a silent conversation reminiscent of the very first day of pretty much every acting class ever.  Despite the amateurish nature of the endeavor, however, such basic offerings were stamped sufficient for my evaluators’ purposes, as my final silent “yes?” to his “yes!” saw me thanked, congratulated, and ushered out the door (all before I could so much as wonder how a two-minute montage of flashed facial expression was to serve as an apt assessment of my relevant talents).  The next thing I knew, I was standing back outside in the sunny chill of a December afternoon, watching rapid clouds of my adrenaline-fueled breath dissipate into the Chicago winter.
The ordeal had taken little more than a quarter of an hour and left me dazed, befuddled, and altogether uncertain as to the status of my chances.  True, I had appeared to have pounded through my percussive portion with flying colors, but it seemed to me that anyone with a couple years of drum lessons and no preexisting rhythmic impairments could have pulled it together to do likewise.  The acting segment, meanwhile, had been a total blur: a ten-minute maelstrom of nervous intensity and dramatic calisthenics during which I couldn’t so much as catch my breath – let alone pause to assess (read: second guess) my own aptitudes as I displayed them.  It was like stepping out of an exam for which one had not had time to check over one’s answers – or even see if he’d shaded the right lettered bubbles: I had no idea whether I’d managed an A or an F.
If only to add to this uncertainty, my auditioners’ final counsel, practically shouted to me as I was whisked back to the world from whence I had come, was to stave off dismay should I fail to hear from anyone that week, month, or even year about my fairings.  Whatever decisions the three of them reached, they explained, would be transmitted back to Blue Man Group Casting headquarters, where even successful resumes would remain filed away until fresh blue meat was needed.  Then and only then would chosen hopefuls be informed of their advancement into further rounds of the process: a mysterious upper echelon of auditionary appraisal about whose entailments I dared not ask (lest I be accused of hubris).  What all this meant was not only was I without the foggiest notion as to my standing in the eyes of my assessors, but conceivably a full twelve months could elapse before such knowledge would be reached.  For all I knew, I’d never know just how well (or poorly) I had done.
 This, of course, made it all the more startling when, two days later, I received a phone call inviting me to be flown out to New York City for final Blue Man Group callbacks.

3.       Blue in Green

I suppose it is only sensible at this point for me to take a step back on behalf of those unfamiliar with The Blue Man Group (or rather those who have not seen the show, as I find it hard to believe that any true American between the ages of six and sixty could be ignorant of the company’s existence entirely) and offer up a brief synopsis of just what the production entails. As most of the show’s comedic elements seem predicated on surprise and/or misdirection, I’ll do my darndest to steer clear of any spoilers and instead try to capture, in general terms, the odds and ends of the BMG viewing experience.  However, having previously attempted to recreate the splendor of the event for the edification of a Blue Man virgin (by which I mean a virgin to the show – not a Blue Man who has never had sex nor someone who has never had sex with a Blue Man), allow me to extend the caveat that such a performance is nearly impossible to do justice via written or verbal depiction.  This, in many ways, speaks to the genius of the show itself, as it manages to make electrifying entertainment out of actions and events that at face-value seem childish, nonsensical, benign or, in some cases, all three.  Its greatest merit is truly to be found in its execution, and because of this I urge any Blue Man greenhorns to eschew the following paragraphs and go score yourselves a couple orchestra seats for the next matinee (unless, of course, you happen to be an epileptic, as the show does make use of strobe light effects, whereas at least for the time being, my blog does not).
The Blue Man Group “experience,” so to speak, really begins upon entering the theatre, as at least each of their permanent company houses (I cannot speak for their touring or Norwegian Cruise shows) features a specific and standardized lobby decor consisting of an overhead entanglement of black and neon plastic tubing and an assortment of plasma balls and other colorful, electricity-spewing gadgetry scattered about the perimeter.  While no doubt the space-age mechanical jungle setup was at one time conceived as a futuristic and high-excitement gateway to the show inside, the ambiguous industrial ornamentation now just feels like it was taken straight off the set of Battlefield Earth.  (For what it’s worth, this is far from the only facet of Blue Man Group that badly dates it as a relic of the 1990s.  Something about the confluence of low-tech special effects and what I would refer to as a “campy sci-fi vibe” give the whole affair an overarching ambience reminiscent of Babylon 5 or TNG, only if Moby did their soundtracks.)
Upon entry into the house itself, one finds oneself bombarded with the charged and looping synth tones of nervous-energied preshow music and greeted by the show’s first characters: a pair of LED billboards.  These intersperse important preshow messages (“no flash photography,” “no intermission,” etc.) with snippets of wry, interactive humor that very much foreshadow the vibe of the entire experience to come.  The billboards also serve to introduce a cosmetic theme that will be retained throughout the performance: namely, the usage of projected text and voiceover to introduce – and in some cases augment – many of the various musical numbers and comedic routines.  Obviously this stands in stark contrast to the distinctive muteness of the title characters, and as such, creates an avenue through which the show explores concepts and nuances of communication as it relates to performance, technology, and society at large.  In one bit, for instance, the three Blue Men simply stand side-by-side, each flipping through a stack of wordy poster board signs, forcing the audience to literally read the show in what could be viewed as (among other things) a deeply ironic take on the theatrical monologue.
But here I’m getting ahead of myself, for when the house-lights go down and the Blue Men first take the stage, they do so with no exposition but with perhaps their most infamous shtick to date: paint drumming.  While there are a number of routines one might dub as entries in the “classic” Blue Man cannon, this one speaks to most every element that sets this show apart (you know, from all those other shows where guys paint themselves blue and do stuff onstage).  Though nothing about the bit is particularly complex (the drumming, while certainly speedy, isn’t exactly Neal Peart, or even Bucket Boys-level in its technicality), it is its well-conceived and well-acted execution that transforms it into electrifying entertainment.  Indeed, this is the act that bookends the show (at least in its current incarnation), and seems to generate the greatest rise from its audiences. 
As the three Blue Men (always three to a performance) pound away at the paint-filled concavities on the undersides of three overturned trashcans (technically it’s only the grand finale in which all three performers drum – in the opening iteration one drums while the other two pour the paint), the high-arcing splatter of the neon liquid creates a majestic visual in the low-angled stage lights as it contrasts against the drummers’ electric blue faces and neck-down black garb.  This, coupled with the actions of the performers themselves – their responses to the eruptions and each other as well as their toying with audience expectations via the quantities of fluid they decant before setting their sticks to the puddles – turn a simplistic exercise into an encapsulating, hilarious, and stunning display.  If there were but one word to describe the routine, it would have to be “mesmerizing,” an assessment that can pretty much be applied to anything the Blue Man Group puts onstage.  Indeed, the ninety minute performance is so glutted with bright neon visuals, high-intensity sound bites, flashing lights, and 180-degree focus-shifts, it is difficult for one’s attention to ebb for even an instant.  Is there a certain cheapness to the way in which sensory overstimulation can at times overcompensate for a lack of meaningful content?  Sure, but Blue Man Group makes no assertions to its being a show of subtlety – rather it seems to take pride in how many different ways it can arouse and involve its audience throughout the experience.
Beyond its basic sensationalism, the paint drumming sets up yet another ongoing theme of the show: messes.  If it wasn’t obvious by the actors being coated up in colored varnish to begin with, this is a performance that loves to get its hands dirty (ironically the Blue Men actually wear blue latex gloves, so they do not, in fact, get their hands dirty).  Without delving into the psychology behind the enjoyable spectatorship of intentional untidiness (who doesn’t get a kick out of watching things shattered and splattered and put into all-around disarray?), I’ll say that the Blue Man Group gets more than a few audience gasps and giggles simply by letting fly with food, garbage, paint – whatever it takes to make the stage into a sloppy disaster by show’s end.  Indeed the true grand finale (remembered well by those who have experienced it) latches onto this idea in the extreme, creating a mess the likes of which have not otherwise been encountered in an active theatrical space (to the best of my knowledge, that is). Though not as antagonistically sloppy as, say, GWAR, Blue Man Group thrives on untidiness, using it as another way to prey on audience expectations and pleasures while heightening its own exhibition of unrestricted fun.
Oh right, had I mentioned fun yet?  Because that may, in fact, be the most crucial element in play throughout the aforementioned proceedings, and perhaps the most significant ingredient to the production at large.  In fact, it probably ought to have been included as a forth (and overarching) explanation behind my own Blue Man ambitions as I can imagine few performative vehicles as downright enjoyable to all involved.  Blue Man Group is fun – if you didn’t already know.  It’s an hour-and-a-half extravaganza of quirkiness, jokiness, music and mayhem intended to amuse, enthuse, and viscerally titillate every five-through-ninety-year-old who comes in through their door on a given night (or matinee).  Though artistry, intellectualism and even (gasp) social message make various, unsubtle cameos throughout, it is an ardent atmosphere of fun that permeates every fiber of every act and keeps audiences coming back year after year.  From the palpable pleasure of the players themselves to the previously-described endless spectacle to the oddball-yet-endearing sense of humor, watching Blue Man Group is a guaranteed pathway to at least some level of emotional enjoyment.  If I ever find myself suicidally depressed and with seventy dollars to spare, I’m heading for the nearest BMG theatre and plopping myself down in the splash zone (…or going to a therapist – you know what?  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it).
But I digress, because it’s not just its opulence of raw merriment that raises Blue Man Group from the masses of stage-set jollification, but the particular channels through which it transmits its whimsy – and yet another of these makes its grand debut via the opening act: live music.  Indeed, one could contend that at its core, the Blue Man Group is nothing more than an eccentric rock band (they’d be wrong, but still…).  To those unfamiliar with the production in whole, this is likely its facet with which they find themselves best acquainted.  After all, the Blue Men have cut three albums, they’ve toured with Busta Rhymes, Moby and David Bowie (the Area2 tour, which I am embarrassed to say I passed up because thirteen-year-old me didn’t take to Ziggy Stardust – sigh…), and just about all of their featured gigs on late-night TV or award shows have consisted of brief, musical-number-only sets.  While I would hope that my depiction here calls attention to the broad range of performative media employed by the company, it’s safe to say that music predominates far more than any one other.
If paint drumming is any indication, however, when Blue Man Group does music, they do it with their own unique panache.  To begin with, they construct the majority of their instruments themselves.  Some of the more notable examples of this include the PVC pipes (a marimba-like setup of intertwined cylinders, played by striking the open ends with paddles), the Drumbone (three thick sections of inter-fitting, white plastic tubing struck by wooden sticks as they are slid apart and back together so as to generate distinct intonations), and of course, a motley assortment of disposal-bin-based tom-tommery.  Percussion is their strong-suit, but this is augmented by a (typically) three-piece onstage backup band that adds an Electric Zither, Chapman Stick, and drum set to the mix.  Over the course of a standard show, each Blue Man instrumental invention gets at least one featured exhibition, leading to half a dozen (give-or-take) “musical numbers” in which the onstage actors actually perform the primary playing themselves.  The rest of the time, the backup band provides an ongoing soundtrack as the Blue Men engage in their more comedic and theatrical-based routines.
The overall sound of the Blue Man Group could best be described (in my limited musical vocabulary, at least) as intensified “Techno-Pop-Rock.”  Part synth-scape part dance-jam and built upon a framework of clean and consonant chordal cadences, it’s the sort of easily-approachable space-mix that proves catchy in the moment, yet forgettable the instant the show ends.  Sonically speaking, it’s closest cousins are perhaps Enya, Delirium, a Three of a Perfect Pair-era King Crimson, and of course, everyone’s favorite Melvillian techno-legend.  Nevertheless its soundtrack sensibilities combined with an absence of vocals and integration of high-fi and low-fi instrumentation lend the Blue Man Group an aural ambience all its own.  In this sense it serves as a perfect complement to the abstract acts and electrifying spectacles it scores, equaling everything from their dizzying intensity to their pop-culture referentiation (via quirky covers) – even their “this was totally seen as hip and cutting-edge in 1995” vibe (seriously, who plays Chapman Stick anymore?).  Though hard to label a show-stealer in and of itself, the music of Blue Man Group plays a vital role within the production, enhancing the action and at times taking center-stage as an exhilarating and original aspect of the BMG experience.
I realize by now I’ve dispensed with a rather heavy-handed heaping of extrapolation despite only actively describing a five minute spell of dudes cutting drum riffs on puddles of Benjamin Moore, but in many ways I feel this splatter-paints a far more informative portrait of the show as a whole.  Much like a graphic account of the experience of attending a baseball game would focus less on the intricacies of pitch-counts and put-outs and more on the overall atmosphere of the event, Blue Man Group is very much about the big picture: its effective interweaving of all the aforementioned elements (and some I will get to in a moment) for the extraction of maximum entertainment value.  I do not mean to imply that its theatre or comedy is broad in and of itself, but rather that its most attractive aspects are to be found imbedded in its overarching vision, and that, for better or for worse, its actual acts are far more interchangeable and even replaceable within that vision’s context.  In other words, it matters less just what the Blue Men are doing onstage than how they are doing it.  While the show’s creators were certainly conscious of its themes when plotting out its ordered course of shticks, vignettes and musical interludes (and crafted them so as to maximize their utility as vehicles for the show’s content), I would argue that three Blue Men could do just about anything onstage – as long as they were doing it in Blue Man style and with the appropriate accompanying lights and sound – and it would still be a pleasurable spectacle to behold.  Then again, maybe that’s just me.
With regards to some of what the Blue Men actually do do onstage (aside from music), there’s really quite a lot (and again, I’ll steer clear of significant spoilers, so feel free to read on be you neophyte or not).  From a voiceover-aided segment detailing the proper makings (and dance-moves) of pop-stardom, to a skit spent slinging snacks across the stage and into each others’ open mouths, to a mischievously-mannered invasion of the audience featuring a miniaturized handy-cam, the Blue Men engage in an eccentric agenda of random tasks whose seamless interweaving seems more a function of their frenetic pace and grand ambience than any correlation within their content. Still, somehow this is a show that can feature its actors bouncing around in LED light suits one minute and yanking back an oversized slingshot the next with even the most intellectual of audience members saying “hell yeah!” and not “what the hell?”
As I keep saying, though, it is their style that binds the elements of the show together and transmits what amounts to an overall vision.  In addition to their particular usage of music, messes, text, fun, and overstimulation, there are a couple other cornerstones to the Blue Man Group MO, discernable in one form or another across a broad range of bits.  One of these is audience involvement.  Whether dragging red-faced patrons onstage to partake in their games first-hand or venturing out into the depths of the house themselves, the Blue Men love turning the tables on their spectators.  To them, the stage is a plane to be broken – if not always physically, at least through the actors’ ongoing awareness of the audience around them.  Even in the most “performance-y” parts of the performance – for instance, the musical numbers – the Blue Men are constantly and discernibly reacting to their crowd, turning every last chuckle and cheer into an organic ingredient of the production itself.  Other acts, however, push this concept even further as the performers aggressively intrude upon their audience: invading their space, touching them, feeding them, and projecting film of them onstage.  Finally, two lucky patrons per show are actually plucked from their seats and cast as active participants in skits: one as an unwitting comedic foil in what may be the show’s funniest sketch, the other as a human piece of arts equipment (take that as you will).
What all of this audience interplay accomplishes is threefold.  To begin with, it truly turns the show from a “performance” into an “experience.”  Attending Blue Man Group is agreeing to be part of the action in whatever way the event so dictates.  This fits hand-in-hand with its style of incessant stimulation: removing the possibility of passive viewership and keeping the audience on-edge at all times.  Secondly, it plays into the theme of artistic critique.  Much like projecting text examines the way art is communicated, by blurring the line between performer and spectator Blue Man Group seems to examine the very notion of performance itself.  By demanding their crowd play part of the production, they blatantly challenge the elements of voyeurism, agency and control inherent in traditional performance (a topic about which probably 100,000 thesis papers have been written – but how many referencing the Blue Man Group?  Ok, maybe 8,000, but still…).
Lastly, by integrating the audience experience directly into the show, the Blue Men ensure an element of unpredictability even beyond that which live theatre always brings.  Without delving too deeply into theatrical theory, it is worth noting that part of what separates theatre from film (and a number of other media) is that the audience – its reactions, applause and general energy – affects the actions onstage, giving each performance its own uniqueness built upon irreplicable circumstances.  When Blue Man Group intensifies this actor-spectator exchange, they bring even more organic volatility to the show, ensuring that each performance is literally guided by the crowd that comes to see it.  Because of this, no two of its shows will ever be the same, and indeed the production draws almost as much from the nuances of human unpredictability as it does from any pre-scripted design. While certainly not the first performative spectacle to make use of audience participation, the variable nature of the show adds an underlying edge to the proceedings and may well be in part why repeat viewing is not out of the norm for its fans.
The last piece to the Blue Man Group equation that I feel compelled to discuss (in my now crumbling endeavor to dutifully recapitulate its viewership experience) is the group’s trademark brand of humor.  As mentioned previously, the show draws from a mélange of absurdism, mess-based slapstick, peppered-in textual wit, and intrusive (often uncomfortable) interaction to generate its laughs.  In plainest terms, the comedy seems to embody a modernistic vaudeville, setting its three technology-aided clowns through a chuckleable gauntlet of clumsy discovery while the audience gasps and giggles at alternating offerings of impressiveness and infantile naiveté.  Again however, it is not necessarily the gags themselves that invoke the heartiest helpings of amusement, but their enactment.
Blue Man humor, despite many of its juvenile embodiments, is relentlessly dry in nature.  It is a comedy of contrast, wherein the most broadly ridiculous of acts (a grown man overfilling his mouth with cereal and spitting it back into a box, for instance) are undertaken with the most deadpan of countenances and most precise of timings. Unlike its close cousins of classically-conceived clown and mime, in which (again, going off of limited expertise here) the protagonists themselves are silly creatures by design, what is funny about the Blue Man Group is that the Blue Men are not funny.  Are they odd?  Absolutely.  Do they partake in a bizarre and/or goofy assemblage of actions?  Indubitably.  But taken at face-value, there is nothing inherently amusing about the character.  The Blue Men are the straightest of straight men: stone-faced and stoic, they seem more confounded by the audience’s perceptions of hilarity than actively instigative of them.  Even their playfulness seems more incidental than choreographed, and in this way their humor comes off as all the more unplanned and all the more fun.
To put this within the context of the show, consider some of the acts I have previously described.  Throwing marshmallows into each others’ mouths, prodding a camera into random audience members’ faces, even drumming and splattering paint about the stage: all these actions are performed not with showy oafishness, but with an anxious severity that turns each twist into a legitimate laughable surprise and serves to somehow make the bizarrities seem all the more absurd.  Blue Man Group humor, which resonates throughout every segment of the show, is a humor of diverted expectations, down to the very nature of the players themselves.  Call it straight-faced mime or “techno-shtick” or whatever the heck you want, but there is no denying the constant peals of laughter that sound from the house show after show and night after night.
All of this then – the use of text, music, fun, spectacle, messes, audience involvement, and deadpan wit – unite to give the Blue Man Group its trademark look and feel.  From the opening, paint-spraying drum riffs to the strobe-lit chaos of the grand finale, this is a show that takes an intricate potpourri of performance, cultural exploration, and artistic vision and hurls it at its audience in the form of an hour and a half of frenetic, approachable and involving entertainment.  Is it flawless in its design?  Of course not (again, a relic of the 1990s, people – not even Morgan Freeman made it out of that decade unblemished), but its undeniable originality combined with its astonishing staying power just goes to show that somehow this peculiar cabaret with its azure-slathered showmen managed somehow to fine-tune its mix into something for all to enjoy.
So there you have it.  Somewhere within my overt Blue Man Kool Aide-drinking (really chugging) and over-written, unfocused garble of prose I hope to have conveyed at least an abstract representation of what the Blue Man Group experience entails.  Perhaps more useful, given the context of this writing, is to read the above as my own subjective take on the show. All told, I’m sure it reveals far more about the author’s personal opinions than it does about the production and franchise itself. But in a way, that’s what’s important here.  As I said in the opening paragraphs, this is a story about one man’s journey of self-discovery, and being as that man is me, perhaps it is less important to present what Blue Man Group actually is than how it appears through my aspiring eyes.  Whatever is to be made of my description, it is that very picture I’ve presented that plucks the Electric Zither strings of my heart and some time ago drove me into this brave blue world.

4.     Big Blue Note

                The intervening week and a half between my Chicago audition and the day I was to be jet-setted out to The City that Never Sleeps was, in a word, “eventful.”  First there was the phone call to my parents – an hour’s worth of giddy disbelief and repeated utterances of “you’re kidding,” “really?” and “you can’t be serious,” that served to impress upon me just how remarkable an opportunity I had been granted. Though none of us were all too convinced of my possessing a legitimate shot at selection (well, maybe my mother was a bit more optimistic than the rest of us – but isn’t that what moms are for?), we all agreed that the ordeal would certainly prove a unique and memorable experience, and heck, I was getting a free trip to New York out of it.  So that was pretty swell.
What was not swell was the inopportune timing of my having started a brand new job that very week.  Few conversations, I would imagine, are more uncomfortable during one’s third day of hire than having to explain to one’s boss that one will be needing half a week’s time-off in order to pursue a long-held ambition of taking the stage as a blue-hewed professional drummer boy. Even dicier was the admission that were I to somehow land this gig, I would immediately be resigning my post so as to dedicate myself to Blue Man duties (blueties?) full-time.  Somehow despite these sensitive divulgences, my boss was fully understanding of the situation (possibly because she too possessed a profound appreciation of the majesty that is Blue Man Group), and acquiesced to my request, wishing me the best in my audition and assuring me that my job would still be around should I return unsuccessful in my endeavors. Aren’t bosses wonderful?
My employment situation settled, it was time to square away the nitty-gritty and prepare myself for the adventure ahead. My parents were kind enough to provide me with a ticket to see Blue Man Group: Chicago, that I might cram in some last-minute reconnaissance in aid of my quest. Incidentally, it made for a stellar viewing experience even the second time around, despite the performers missing an unseemly high number of mouth-catches during the marshmallow tossing bit (maybe I didn’t have to be too good at random tricks after all).  I was also contacted directly by a kindly BMG representative named Tascha (pronounced toss-ka) who, in addition to handling my travel arrangements, provided me with a general briefing on the upcoming proceedings. The full call-back, she explained, would be a two-day affair, with cuts to be made at the completion of the first, and the second’s work to be done in full Blue Man regalia – bald-cap and blue makeup included! Silently I vowed to purchase a disposable camera and do anything I could to make it to the second day.
The last excitement to be had as I waited impatiently for my day of departure to dawn was the (admittedly self-centered) thrill of sharing my news with the world.  In truth, most of my actual friends were kept in the dark as to the true purposes of my voyage (and indeed some may be learning about it for the first time via this writing) as I still had no high hopes of success and balked at the thought of having to admit later failure to those confidants whose awareness I dared raise.  Instead what proved most fun (and true to motive number three for my Blue Man ambitions) was imparting word of my impending opportunity onto strangers.  Most notably, the news of my audition proved an uncanny icebreaker when meeting new coworkers, turned me into a minor celebrity for the gaggle of drunken dentists I befriended at my BMG research-viewing (a DDS office-party out of rural Illinois who were celebrating the holiday season by slipping into the big city, liquoring themselves silly, and scoring themselves two rows of center-orch seats – oh, dentists…), and perhaps most impressively, managed to work wonders with the ladies (true story – I wound up going on a couple dates with a girl I met at a party this way and who had me listed in her phone simply as “Blue Man”). Not that I was broadcasting my fortunes from the rooftops, but as someone who had had very little to boast about for quite some time, it felt good to see the looks of bemused marvel on the faces of new acquaintances as I (or my adept wingman, Ben) divulged just how close I was to reaching Bluetopia.
                Despite all my fun, the week somehow managed to fly by, and in no time at all, it seemed, I was cabbing it from my office to O’Hare Airport, having my gonads gently patted by a TSA agent, and sidling into my aisle seat on Delta Shuttle #5945 into JFK. Touching down in New York around 9 PM, I couldn’t help but feel panged by a touch of nostalgia for the epic skyline and frenzied light-spectacle of downtown Manhattan.  Thus it was a mix of trepidation, exhilaration, and odd hominess I found myself feeling as I gazed out from the back of a yellow cab on route to the Holiday Inn Soho, where a good night’s sleep and the start to the following day’s festivities awaited me.

(To be continued...)



    (insert some sort of pun about you giving me a female, not-exactly sexual version of blue're the writer, not me.)

  2. Hey, I was your prom date, I find the relevant line somewhat offensive. But also funny.