In 1986, Phil Stanton arrived in New York with a suitcase and a single goal: to carve out a career in theater. But like most aspiring performance artists, be they in the Big Apple or Hollywood, Stanton’s career path featured a detour through the wait-service industry. It was a detour that forever changed his life. For it was on his first job as a waiter for a catering company that Stanton met Chris Wink, who in turn introduced Stanton to his friend Matt Goldman. The three quickly formed a bond through mutual interests, and before long they were standing in the middle of Central Park, with bald caps on their heads and their faces covered with deep-blue makeup, holding a “funeral” for the ’80s. And with that, the Blue Man Group was born.
“All I can say is we were trying to crack ourselves up, trying to have fun and trying to express something,” Stanton, 52, says of Blue Man Group’s infancy. “We didn’t know whether we’d ever make a living from it, so it was just a lark in a way. But at the same time, we took it seriously.”
So seriously that nearly a quarter-century later, the peculiar, drum-thumping bald-and-blue characters that Stanton and his partners brought to life have become pop-culture icons. Their show—described as a “celebration of the human spirit through music, science, art and theater”—has been seen by more than 25 million people worldwide, a number that will grow Oct. 10 when Blue Man Group, which debuted on the Strip at Luxor and later moved to the Venetian, officially moves into its third Las Vegas home, the Monte Carlo Theatre.
How in the world did you come up with a concept like Blue Man Group?
Wow, that’s one of the hardest things to answer. It was really just kind of an intuitive thing. My partner Chris was the first to come up with the idea of a bald and blue character—we had no idea who the character was or what he would do, any of that stuff. It was just, “Wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to have a bald and blue character? Wouldn’t it be kind of beautiful, but also sublime-looking in a way, with the ability to be comic at the same time?” … You don’t really sit down at a desk and come up with something like this. You have to start at an entry point, and then it just grows.
I do think we knew early on that we wanted it to be a tribal expression, a contrast to our modern world, but be something sort of futuristic at the same time. But we didn’t know a lot about the character or what it might do, or what we might do eventually with the project. We didn’t plan more than a few months ahead initially.
How confident was the team that the show would be a hit?
I don’t know that we were confident at all. At that time, no one had attempted a nontraditional act or concept like this for a typical commercial-theater run. Before that, if you had asked me to predict what our career would end up looking like, I would’ve said, “Well, we might develop the show further; we might go to college campuses.” … So the answer is we weren’t really confident at all, but we didn’t care. We didn’t have any visions of ever making a living from it. It was a passion before it was a career.
Was there a backup plan?
I didn’t have one! [Laughs.] I think Matt probably did because he came from the business world—he was a software producer, so he probably had a job he could go back to. I probably was going back to waitering and then continue to work on my acting career.
It was kind of an intuitive choice. I think after the fact you can come up with a lot of reasons why it works—there’s something about that kind of deep blue color that can be both sublime and serious, but it allows you to be comic, too. It’s neutral in a weird way. … Colors often come with their own signifiers; blue is like sky and water, while red is the devil and green is plant world or martian. But we didn’t go through a Rolodex of colors to see what might work best. The first one took.
You were curious about science at a young age, yet you graduated college with degrees in religious studies and theater arts. So what did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a fighter pilot—seriously! Math got in the way, because I wasn’t great at it, but then I applied myself and made really good grades, even though it didn’t come easily. And I did that so I could go be a fighter pilot—until I realized “Oh my God, those things kill people! I’m not sure I want to do that.”
I don’t think of myself as religious in this way now, but at one time early in life, I thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps and be a minister. I think probably the thing that’s most lasting in the way I was raised was, what you do with your life is important, and it’s important to leave your footprint on earth. I inherited that [belief] that what you do should matter somehow. And that’s what [Blue Man Group] is for me. It’s not an environmental concern, it’s not politics, it’s not religion, but I really feel like there’s power in theater to transform people’s lives.
What’s the one Las Vegas show you wish you had created?
I’m a big admirer of Penn & Teller. I wish I had their creativity at creating their tricks. I love their sensibility. They’re great friends of ours, and I wish I could get into their head for a day and bring some of what they have back to our work.
Where is the one place in Las Vegas you always visit when you’re in town?
I like to go to that vortex atrium [at Crystals mall] in CityCenter—there’s a sculptural garden there with a bunch of vortex machines. It’s something that I always wanted to do, and it’s great to see that someone executed it. Oh, I’ll tell you another thing I’m a sucker for, no matter how many times I see it: the fountain show at Bellagio. I love the simplicity of it, the power of it. There’s something about seeing water used in that way.