A new rock band is about to take over the O2 arena. It has no name and no frontman. Instead, three mute men covered in blue paint are the stars – and so is the audience. This is the new extravaganza from Blue Man Group. You may have seen the last Blue Man Group show on tour from its home in America across Europe. For 18 months they took over a West End theatre, entertaining with their combination of vaudeville, mime, much paint-splashing, audience participation and inventive percussion. Now they have taken their drumming skills to a new level, playing alongside a rock'n'roll band.
The show How To Be a Megastar sees the unlikely trio of blue men, all wide-eyed wonder and childlike curiosity, attempt to learn the tricks to becoming rock stars. The audience learns too, via an overhead projection of a DIY manual, and following Blue Man's actions (the head bob, jumping up and down – you get the picture). In essence, it's a pastiche of the formula behind the quintessential rock band and the personality that drives a famous group.
The men in blue aren't about personality. Phil Stanton, one of the three founding blue men who no longer performs but directs and produces the show, and is planning a stage reunion with the trio later this year, explains: "The irony in it was there without saying anything, because the blue man was this silent, ego-less, character. Rock concerts are usually based on personality, so in that regard it was a huge experiment. Can you have a concert at all without a frontman? Because the blue man is not a front man. He doesn't sing or speak and you don't know who he is. You can't worship blue man as a personality because he's a concept."
The concept dates as far back as the Eighties, when three aspiring actors, including Stanton, moved to New York to pursue their acting careers. Disillusioned with the machinations of the acting world and a little bit anti-establishment, they would meet up together as friends sharing their interests and whatever books they were reading. They decided to do their own thing where they could pursue all their interests. One of the trio, Chris Wink, came up with the blue man character, which they felt represented something universal in people – and was a step outside the American ego.
The three would dress in black clothes, wear latex masks, smother themselves in cobalt blue greasy paint, and go out to clubs and bars in New York and perform spontaneous street-art-theatre.
The early stage shows came from a desire to create a live show that they themselves would enjoy, that would amalgamate all their interests into one cohesive show. "It was about making ourselves laugh, and if you can make yourself laugh you can make other people laugh," says Stanton. "The fact is we all like to get lost in the experience of a rock concert or any live event. We're trying to create a great rock concert, a satire about the cult of personality and the ego that comes along with it. Ultimately it's saying the audience is the star because we all need experiences like that."
Those who enjoyed the original show will be pleased to know some of the best of the clowning remains, including marshmallow throwing, paint spitting and playing that unusual percussion instrument the "drumbone" – a cross between a drum and a trombone.
Made from several pieces of piping, it takes all three blue men to play it: as one taps out a rhythm, another is holding it while the third adds and contracts the pieces to adapt the sound and create a melody (albeit of five notes).
The audience is just as involved too. Willing participants climb the stage for paint splattering, and the first two rows are still given plastic macs for protection. At times it is visually amazing. As the three each strike a large drum filled with a bright coloured paint, with the stage lights beaming, the rainbow effect alongside the tribal beats is both powerful and stunning. But this time the favourite clowning is just part of the action. The focus is the rock show – in an arena setting.
Though the blue men are never idle on stage, there is a lot of watching a rock show – and the videos too. Best are the moments when the rock group takes a song that everyone in the crowd recognises and the blue men add their percussive take on it – a snippet of Van Halen's "Jump" and some Madonna thrown in, too.
Music has always featured in the Blue Man Group; since the 1990s they have had a band onstage, and a CD album of the show's instrumental music was nominated for a Grammy award. They even joined Moby, Pink and Busta Rhymes to perform a more rock-oriented show on a tour of an all-day concert, and in 2002 they joined Moby on tour.
The songs they developed on the tour were incorporated into a second album including both covers and the music that they had written that had lyrics. Their next step was to attempt to create a theatrical experience around the music.
Today the Blue Man Group sells out 4,000-10,000 capacity venues around the world and there are more than 50 blue-man performers, including women. They are all actors, but some had to learn percussion for the role. That included Stanton, who had never played drums.
At the beginning the concept of someone other than their trio becoming a blue man wasn't something that they could get their heads around. It wasn't until Stanton injured his thumb and needed surgery that they were forced to enlist the help of a new blue man.
"It's funny in some ways – the most obvious thing is that there could be other blue men, right? Because you can't tell who's who, the three look alike. It was one of the big 'aha' moments. Yes, other people can do it. It opened up this whole other world at the time, that of course other people can and should do it because the blue man is Everyman. We never even published our names, it was never about any personalities. Other people can and should do it and we realised also that it's really great to go out there and see what it's like. And we learned to direct it better that way."
Blue Man Group play London O2 Arena on 15 February and 16 and 17 May. Further UK dates go on sale 21 February (www.ticketzone.co.uk; 08705 321 321)