On NYC's Streets, A Rhapsody in Blue

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Whatever you do, never ask a Blue Man to assume the jazz hands position.

"No, no hands! They don't do that. It's not in their arsenal of moves," implores Chris Wink, who co-founded Blue Man Group in the late '80s. A photographer has cornered a trio of his cerulean creations on St. Mark's Place in New York's artsy East Village and is coaxing them to go into "Cabaret" mode.

As the puzzled threesome (well, they always look puzzled) begin to raise their palms into the air, Wink rushes over and jumps in front of the camera. "No Fosse hands, please."

You can't blame the guy for being protective. After all, he knows what makes a man truly Blue . . . and what doesn't. The troupe was formed when Wink and fellow caterers Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton -- searching for an outlet for their excessive creativity, musical panache and freakish ability to snatch tossed marshmallows out of thin air with their mouths -- began performing on Manhattan streets and fringe stages. In 1991, they opened in the intimate Astor Place Theatre on Lafayette Street.

They're still there. The faces under the paint may have changed (although Wink still goes blue on occasion, new performers appear at the Astor Place), but the Blue Men have become neighborhood staples. Audiences get the same frenetic blend of multimedia theatrics, music from instruments seemingly purchased in Whoville and awkward bouts of onstage participation.

Today, Blue Man Group has stage shows in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, Berlin and Oberhausen, Germany. It has just opened a new venue in Tokyo and tours in a lavish production called "How to Be a Megastar 2.1." (It's at Patriot Center on Feb. 9-10.) There have been film and TV scores and albums, and last year Wink and company inaugurated the Blue Man Creativity Center, a school next to the theater for more than 40 kids. And if you didn't see how Blue Man Group was confused with a depressed-male support group in "Arrested Development," you need to get the Season 2 DVD.

One thing they haven't done much of, though, is explore their own back yard. In full Blue regalia. And without a smidge of fanfare. On this unseasonably warm fall afternoon, Wink has agreed to set loose three Blue Men, as much to show off his 'hood, one suspects, as to see what sort of ruckus it would trigger.

The group's large rented van pulls up in front of the Astor Place, which sits across from Joe Papp's fabled Public Theater. Rain is in the forecast, particularly worrisome if your skullcapped noggin is covered in thick blue goo, and darkness is coming on fast. The trio emerges bright-eyed and black-sheathed from the van and immediately proceeds up Lafayette.

Ruckus ensues.

Within minutes, dozens of passersby -- more than a few of them New Yorkers, mind you -- have surrounded the Blue Men as they jump off to posture near Tony Rosenthal's "Alamo" sculpture, more popularly known as the Cube. Wink, an architecture buff and native New Yorker, averts his eyes from the growing crush long enough to scowl at the startlingly modern skyscraper opposite the large metal block.

"I think one of the lures of [the East Village] is not just the old days, but that there are still some amazing buildings," he says. "We know that the forces of gentrification are at work, but at least the buildings haven't been razed."

Moments later, his Blue Men nearly are. As the crowd of gawkers surges toward St. Mark's Place, traffic signals are ignored and common sense is discarded. Cars and trucks stop short, horns blaring; at least once, a driver's middle finger stands salute.

Even by East Village standards, St. Mark's is a brownstone standout, a narrow lane lined with a wild mix of head shops, open-air vendors, pubs, body-piercing emporiums, tattoo parlors, comic book stores and, of course, Supercuts. Wink shrugs it off. "The Village is still here. Sure, we have Starbucks, but the Village is still here," he says. "And this guy is still here."

"This guy" is a lanky, tangled-haired legend standing atop a flight of stairs smoking a cigarette. Jimmy Webb is the manager of Trash and Vaudeville, a two-floor clothing store that's been supplying the world with all its punk, rock and Goth needs since the '70s. Inside, leather and lace and everything in between line racks being picked over by youngish shoppers who can pull off the black-stretch-jeans look, or at least think they can. Under Wink's direction, the Blue Men ascend the stairs and, as if he'd been waiting for them all his life, Webb spins around and pulls up his shirt to display the gargantuan "I NEED MORE" tattoo on his back.

(A few days later, Webb is still excited. "I think Blue Man Group wandering down the streets of New York . . . is like looking across the street and seeing Deborah Harry or Iggy Pop or that hooker or that Park Avenue lady or that Wall Street businessman," he says, before showing off pictures of himself with Iggy.)

For a half-hour or so, the three are the pied pipers of St. Mark's, zigzagging back and forth across the street with admirers in tow. The Blue Men pore over rainbow wigs. The Blue Men toy with knives at a sushi bar. The Blue Men take an old-time barber chair for a spin. The Blue Men taunt a falafel maker (falafelist?) who refuses to hand over a sample. The Blue Men play with buttons at the Pepto-pink Bamn! automat. The Blue Men get in the way of a snarky dude carrying boxes down some stairs, causing him to hiss, "I'm working, I'm working."

They don't go near the Chipotle in mid-block.

Shadows descend on the street, and the crowd thins. A few raindrops fall. "Let's cross over to Second now," Wink says, grabbing the collar of one of the Blue Man publicists. "But not in front of this truck."

The Blue Men approach the Orpheum, the theater where the area's other longtime crowd-pleaser, "Stomp," has been playing since 1994. "I don't want to plug 'Stomp,' but who cares? At this point, we're all in the same boat." Wink tells the Blue Men to stop in front of the marquee and raise their hands in, what, respect? "Say hello to our brothers in the Village."

The energy wanes after a stroll down Sixth Street, which features a bevy of Indian restaurants. Earlier, Wink had promised that the street "hasn't changed at all." But Indian Row is a bust; few people are eating, and even the musicians in the window of one joint are on a break. Wink admits the street has changed more than he thought -- but that's okay.

"For a tourist, the one good thing about the area now is that there aren't any drug dealers. . . . It's sort of a weird way of consoling oneself," he says. "I'm not saying it's better now, I'm not for yuppification of places, but it's a really safe place right now. You can walk around anytime."

Except if you're headed to Washington Square Park with three weary Blue Men and an entourage of about a half-dozen makeup people and publicists. Then that van comes in handy.

En route to the Greenwich Village park, about five blocks from St. Mark's, the trio banter among themselves ("You were amazing out there"), which is kind of creepy, since Blue Men don't talk. They just don't. But they've been on their feet for an hour, entertaining the masses for free, and are obviously happy to be using their voices instead of wide-eyed wonder to communicate.

At Washington Square, a cellist under the park's arch catches the attention of the Blue Men, whose musical instincts lead them over before Wink has a chance to tell them to do it. As the street musician performs, the three stand mesmerized, shtick-free at last.

The skies have cleared, casting a glow onto the park that would make Woody Allen cry. Students from nearby NYU, businessmen in suits cutting through the park and nannies pushing carriages pace about, anticipating a performance.

"We've done a couple of things outside of the theater, but we don't get out much," Wink says, eyeing the crowd. "The problem is, when we go out, people are always expecting a show." Sometimes, it's just not easy being Blue.

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