Matt Goldman, Chris Wink and Phil Stanton are entrepreneurs who created and oversee a global enterprise that has brought joy to more than 17 million people. They are also innovators, educators, artists, and contemporary comedians, known collectively as the founders and originators of Blue Man Group. That these three bald and blue characters would become a cultural phenomenon is an idea that was all but unimaginable when these inscrutable beings first emerged, walking the streets of New York.
“We weren’t really goal-oriented,” says Stanton. “When we started walking around the city, we did it because we wanted to see how people reacted. And being bald and blue was our social life. We didn’t want to go to bars and be part of a singles scene, a drinking scene. We wanted our social life to be somehow creative, and this was a lot of fun. We knew we would eventually do some kind of performance, but we never envisioned a commercial theater run.”
The show is an absurd and wondrous blend of music, painting, science and technology, as the Blue Men silently engage in a variety of set pieces that run the gamut from primitive and childlike to witty and sophisticated.
“It’s all about creativity and innovation,” says Puck Quinn, creative director of character development and appearances. “If someone asks, ‘What does Blue Man Group do?,’ my answer is simple: ‘We innovate.’”
Everything begins with the Blue Man, and although he’s been around for more than two decades, his founders still can’t entirely explain where he came from. Like the character himself, his origin is enigmatic.
“There really isn’t an explanation,” says Goldman. “Chris dug up a picture that he drew when he was five years old, and it had three blue men in it. And I had a thing in my wallet for years with a blue tribe in South America. I don’t know why it was there; I never put pictures in my wallet. We think the Blue Man has always been here. The best answer is that we found each other.”
The impulse for going bald and blue emerged, in part, when the three longtime friends observed a clash of cultures on a New York sidewalk that no one else noticed.
“We saw three punk rockers – giant Mohawks, safety pins in the cheekbone area, leather and chains – walk between three other gentlemen who were dressed in Armani suits and carrying alligator briefcases,” says Goldman. “These six guys didn’t even blink, and the people around them didn’t even blink. And we turned to each other and said, ‘If that scene didn’t even get one iota of consciousness put to it, what human imagery possibly could?”
Eventually, an image began to emerge.
“We thought, ‘What would surprise people?” says Stanton. “‘What’s going to catch someone’s eye and make them think?’ We thought that if we created a bald and blue character, that image would have the ability to surprise and spark some thought for a long time.”
Goldman adds, “The first time we got bald and blue, we knew instantly it was something very special. And it was so freeing, because it wasn’t us. Our own egos were gone.”
The traits of the Blue Man developed gradually.
“There was something about him that seemed timeless, and something that seemed a little bit futuristic,” says Stanton. “He seemed to have the ability to be beautiful and comic at the same time. I’m not even sure we thought about that at first. It was really intuitive. We were trying to create a character that somehow represented humanity, but was able to be outside of humanity and look at it at the same time. We wanted to make a statement about community, about the power of a group, as opposed to the American individualist mentality. We thought the character would express community through something tribal, and drumming seemed the way to go. Chris had trained as a drummer, and I was from a really musical background. We wanted to draw from our own interests and backgrounds, and bring them into some kind of performance. We wanted to express something about the process, or the impulse to create.”
They continued to develop material for three years, performing in downtown clubs and event spaces. Two decades later, Goldman, Stanton and Wink are still tinkering with, refining, and updating the show. Each additional production, including the tour, provides an opportunity for new material.
“Sometimes we just see something that we think is really cool, and we’ll try and see how we can make it theatrical,” says Stanton.
Blue Man Productions, the parent company that oversees all projects, employs several hundred people around the world. Goldman, Stanton, Wink and their staff pay the same attention to the details of their business as they do to the details of their art.
“From the beginning, we valued what went on offstage as much as what went on onstage,” says Stanton. “It’s important to us how people are treated. The creativity that goes into what happens offstage is viewed as part of what ends up onstage. We never separate the two. We always wanted to own our own show, and live with the decisions that we made, rather than hand all of that off to somebody else. We want to be responsible for what happens, and we wanted to make sure it was a life-long journey.”
by Michael Lassell
Like Mary Poppins, the character she created, P.L. Travers did not believe in explaining. She did, however, believe in self-mythologizing, leaving those intent on biographical criticism so confused in her wake that even her obituaries had the facts wrong (according to Valerie Lawson, author of Out of the Sky She Came, the definitive Travers biography).
PLT, as she was sometimes called, did not even take credit for “creating” Poppins. Instead, she insisted, the nanny with the upturned nose just came to her one day, much as she blows in on the East Wind in the opening chapter of Mary Poppins (1934). But whether Travers created the “Practically Perfect” Poppins—while convalescing from pleurisy in her Sussex, England, cottage—or merely channeled her, the world is in her debt.
Despite the obfuscation, many facts of the author’s life are indisputable. Pamela Lyndon Travers, as she was fully known in her adult life, was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia, in 1899 (although the dust jacket of one of her own books claims it was 1906). She took her professional name—Travers was her father’s first name—during a brief stint as a dancer and actor. In 1924, she left Australia permanently after which she lived principally in England, with periods in Ireland and the U.S. (for a time with the Navajo).
PLT’s early life was fairly idyllic, until her father died when she was only seven. The eldest of three girls, she was remarkably imaginative, given to pretending she was a hen, spending hours brooding on an imaginary nest of eggs. She loved reading and ingested the Brothers Grimm (especially the gory bits). For a time in her childhood she thought “grim” was another word for story. “Tell me a grim,” she would say.
This child fantasist grew up to become quite self-sufficient, very much an “independent woman,” and years ahead of her time. To quote from Caitlin Flanagan’s 2005 New Yorker piece, “Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it … [and as] she approached 40, she decided that she wanted a child… .[So she adopted] an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother.”
After leaving Australia, where she had supported herself as a journalist, Travers matured into a poet, critic and essayist, and “a serious writer” of fiction and nonfiction books. Her circle of acquaintances included William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, and her personal interests ran to mythology and mysticism (she was a longtime disciple of guru G.I. Gurdjieff). PLT reduced her alias to its initials to disguise her gender, hoping to escape the dismissive stereotype of the lightweight authoress.
The great success of Mary Poppins was immediately followed by Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935). Mary Poppins Opens the Door appeared in 1944, followed eight years later by Mary Poppins in the Park (1952). These four books—collections of stories with recurring characters rather than novels—are the core of the nanny’s canon. The last of the Poppins tales, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, materialized in 1989.
Travers would not seem like the kind of person to be wooed by Walt Disney, but pursue her he did—or at least the film rights to Mary Poppins, a favorite of his daughters. It took Disney 20 years to convince the strong-willed and proprietary Travers to approve a script and sign on the dotted line, and it cost Disney five percent of the Mary Poppins gross. (Adjusted for inflation, the movie ranks as #23 on the list of all-time box-office earners.)
It took producer Cameron Mackintosh nearly as long to wrangle the stage rights. By the time he knew her, he says, “she was a frail old lady. But you could see that she had a steel rod going down her spine… She asked me lots of questions about her characters and what kind of musical I wanted to do on stage. When I started to dig for information I felt very much like Michael and Jane Banks waiting to be told, ‘You’ll do.’”
When Mackintosh finally acquired the theatrical rights, he met with Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, to talk about the possibility of a joint production. He gave Schumacher the treatment he had worked up for the stage musical and Schumacher gave Mackintosh an armful of documents from the Disney vault.
“It was amazing,” recalls Schumacher, “that Cameron had focused on many of the characters and episodes from the books that Travers wanted to include in the Mary Poppins film sequel that was never made.”
As is frequently the case with people who do not like to talk about their personal lives, that of Travers seems unusually freighted with frustration and conflict—especially in her relationships, both requited and not. Even her 50-year collaboration with illustrator Mary Shepard—herself the daughter of Ernest H. Shepard, who first drew Winnie the Pooh—was not always placid. Perhaps Julie Andrews described Travers best: “I liked her,” said the Oscar-winning Andrews. “She was an eccentric and rather tough old girl but a good-hearted one, I felt.”
Countless details from PLT’s life found their way into her books. After her father’s death, Travers found herself living with her Great Aunt Helen (known as Aunt Ellie), for whom PLT was named. Ellie was an irascible and sometimes bitter spinster, described as variously peremptory and humane, given to sniffing disapprovingly and to quoting every bromide in the book of child rearing. She seems clearly to have been, at least in part, the life model for Mary Poppins. Not coincidentally, she made a habit of carrying a carpetbag. Physically, Mary Poppins is described as resembling a Dutch doll that was one of PLT’s playthings as a girl.
Travers assigned her own father’s occupation—bank manager—to Mary Poppins’ employer, George Banks, along with her father’s money troubles. Two of the Banks children, as Lawson points out in her book, are named after two of PLT’s relatives in Australia. Even the Royal Doulton bowl that figures so prominently in “Bad Wednesday” from Mary Poppins Comes Back was an artifact from PLT’s childhood. And her childhood nurse sported an umbrella with a carved parrot head for a handle.
That Mary Poppins is so widely considered a loving caregiver is one of the central mysteries of the books. Jane and Michael Banks are simultaneously devoted to her and terrified of displeasing her. Far from rosy-cheeked and flirtatious, as she seems from the film, the literary Poppins is described as strict, stern, remote and rigid—and she can stop a child in its muddy tracks with her blue-eyed glare.
Aside from the frequent dreamlike adventures that take her charges out of the ordinary world, the Poppins program of parenting is not the kind of rearing you would expect children to enjoy—not today; not in Depression-era London, where the books are set; not in 1910, the period of the film.
What is unique about Mary Poppins is her ability to impose order to the chaotic Banks household and a modicum of normalcy (between episodes of sorcery). Is Mary a magical fairy godmother, a disapproving authority figure or a satisfying bit of both?
That generations of readers have loved Mary Poppins, and grieved at her successive departures from 17 Cherry Tree Lane, may be the biggest mystery of the conjuring nanny’s hold on our collective hearts. Maybe it is the unexpected complexity that makes us cherish both Poppins and Travers. They don’t offer us an easy life, just a fascinating one. If their enchanted rose gardens come with thorns, the flowers bloom in colors we have never before seen.
Pamela Travers died in 1996, four months short of her 97th birthday.
Michael Lassell is the author of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida: The Making of the Broadway Musical, Tarzan: The Broadway Adventure and, with Brian Sibley, the forthcoming book on bringing Mary Poppins to the stage (all from Disney Editions).
A few tips for Monty Python novices and wannabes.
Remember the first time you tried liver? Or asparagus? OK, bad examples. But just like you didn’t have to be Jewish to eat Arnold’s Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be a stuffy, upper-class twit or even a drunken rugby fan to enjoy Spamalot.
“Taste is the enemy of art altogether. I’ve thought about this a lot. People with good taste are constantly worrying about what other people will think. Don’t put that couch over there! It’s the wrong thing to be thinking about because it squashes expression. Of life and vitality of all kinds, and sex – all the funny things!” —Spamalot director, Mike Nichols, New York Magazine
“I haven’t seen the movie so I won’t get the jokes.”
Please note that the Broadway musical Spamalot is only a partial rip-off of the spectacularly low-budget film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This extravagantly over budget musical, on the other hand, features a chorus of hunky men and sexy dancing girls, eye-popping sets, lavish costumes, plenty of new songs and several (extremely tasteful) potshots at theatrical institutions like Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Misérables.
“Comedy is about reminding us of the truth of being human: we all have a body and we all must die, and it is okay.” —Eric Idle, BBC News Online
“I can’t take my mom/daughter/sister to Spamalot. It’s really a guy show.”
OK, so your sons and husbands and uncles and grandfathers may know some of the lines by heart already, but Spamalot is so much more than fart jokes and dismembered knights. How about Tony Award-winning direction from Mike Nichols, director of The Birdcage, Working Girl and The Graduate. How about Tony-nominated choreography from Casey Nicholaw of this season’s The Drowsy Chaperone?
“But the Pythons didn’t write good parts for women because they were public schoolboys not used to dealing with ladies.” —The “Seventh Python,” Carol Cleveland, actress in most Python programs/movies/stage shows
…So don’t take our word for it – take theirs!
Frank Abagnale Jr. is an expert on fraud, scams, deception and beating the system. Between the ages of 16 and 21, he forged and cashed $2.5 million worth of bad checks in the United
States and 26 other countries, while successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot for Pan Am, a doctor, a college professor and a lawyer. He was ultimately caught, as he always knew he would be, and served time in French, Swedish and American prisons.
Abagnale’s adventures were immortalized, and somewhat fictionalized, in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the young con man and Tom Hanks playing the FBI agent who pursued him. The movie, based on a ghost-written autobiography, inspired a 2011 Broadway musical of the same name – score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, book by Terrence McNally, direction by Jack O’Brien and choreography by Jerry Mitchell – which is now touring the country.
It’s easy to understand why great storytellers have been attracted to this period in Abagnale’s life. His capers were colorful, improbable, glamorous, ingenious and exciting. With each chase, with each con, there also was the element of suspense: Would he get away with it? How would he get away with it? It’s a tale that practically begged to be told on screen and on stage.
Abagnale’s life on the lam is the most entertaining part of his story – but it’s not the best part of his story. It may not even be the most remarkable part of his story. What Abagnale has done since leaving behind his life of crime is both mind-boggling and inspiring. He has used his knowledge as a counterfeiter and scam artist to stop criminals and protect law-abiding citizens, initially working with the FBI – which was part of his parole agreement – and then by developing a host of fraud prevention programs that are used by more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies. “Those are the amazing things to me about my life,” he says, “not what I did so many years ago.”
He didn’t set out to be a con artist when he ran away from home to New York City following his parents’ divorce. “It started out as survival,” he says. “I was 16 and tried to get jobs working in a store, like a delivery boy, and I realized they weren’t going to pay me anything. I knew I looked older, and I thought that if I lied about my age, if people thought I was ten years older, they’d pay me more.”
But as the film and musical indicate, Abagnale was resourceful and very smart, and he began to figure out ways – none of them legal – to make great sums of money, more than he ever dreamed. “I’ve always said that the two reasons for my success were that I was very creative and very observant,” he says. “I saw things that no one paid attention to. I was able to look at things and figure out ways around them. I think I got away with a lot of things because I was an adolescent; I had no fear of being caught. And like most adolescents, I wasn’t thinking about the consequences.”
He didn’t have nearly as much fun as the Frank Abagnale of stage and screen. “It’s a very lonely life,” he says. “Everyone you meet thinks you’re somebody else. I couldn’t confide in anybody. I was this teenage boy out on his own, and I cried myself to sleep many nights. Everyone I associated with thought I was their peer, but they were ten years older than I. So I was constantly having to act like an adult.
“I was also being chased, and I knew I had to stay one step ahead,” he continues. “At one point it became a game between me and the FBI agent as to who was going to outsmart who. But you grow up and mature and you realize you don’t want to live the rest of your life like that. I always knew I’d get caught: I didn’t have it in me to give myself up, but I knew it was a matter of time before they would catch up with me. And there’s great relief when you’re caught because it’s over. When I look back on my life, even knowing where it has brought me, I would never want to have to live that over again.”
Abagnale was 21 years old and living under an assumed name in France when the French police caught him and imprisoned him for six months under horrific conditions. He then spent six months in a Swedish jail, and was subsequently deported to the United States. Before American authorities could take him into custody he ran away again, escaping through the service area of the plane – not by disemboweling a plane’s toilet, as in the movie. “I was desperate, but not that desperate,” he says. He was desperate because he was terrified. “I thought I might go to prison for 20 years or for the rest of my life. Having experienced prison, I got very scared, and that’s why I tried to escape. I had no idea whether American prisons were like French prisons.”
He was eventually caught and sentenced to 12 years in jail. But after four years he was paroled, on the condition that he would use his expertise teaching and working undercover for the FBI. “I didn’t come out of prison saying, ‘I’m a changed person, I will never do this again,’” he says. “The truth is that this was a way to get my freedom. I didn’t know what I would do, or whether I would go straight.”
It was during one of his undercover assignments that Abagnale met Kelly, the woman who would become his wife. “She was working on her master’s degree, writing a paper and doing an internship at this institution where I was undercover,” he says. “I met her under this phony name, and started dating her. On my last day, I took her to the park and said, ‘I would really like to continue to see you, but I have to explain that I’m not this person, this is not what I do for a living. I work for the government and I’ve been here on assignment.’ I broke protocol, which you’re never supposed to do. But she listened to me, and she literally changed my life. She believed in me, she had faith in me, and she married me against the wishes of her parents, who eventually came to love me. She saw something in me that other people probably never saw. She gave me three beautiful children. I am who I am and I am and where I am because of the love of a woman, and the respect three sons have for their father. “
With Kelly in his life, Abagnale’s redemption truly began. When his obligation to the FBI was completed, he was asked to remain on. “I didn’t want to stay on as an employee of the government, because there were things I wanted to do that I’d be restricted from doing, like writing books and educating people about crime,” he says. “I also had a lot of technology ideas that I wanted to develop, but I knew that if I did them while working for the government, the technology would become government property.” So he became a contract employee, working as a consultant and teaching at the FBI Academy – where one of his students was his oldest son, now an FBI agent.
Abagnale works with the FBI to this day, and became lifelong friends with the agent who relentlessly pursued him, Joseph Shea – known as Carl Hanratty in the movie and the musical – who died in 2005. He has his own business, Abagnale & Associates, a security consulting firm, and is considered to be a leading authority in the field. He is a dynamic, much sought-after lecturer, and a self-made millionaire – legitimately. Just as surprising, he serves on the advisory board of Wild Wings International, the philanthropic organization of former Pan Am flight attendants. “Who would have dreamed that?” he says. “Only in America could something like this happen.”
Yet he lives with his past everyday. And although three presidents have offered to pardon him, he has turned them down. “I respectfully declined,” he says, “because I truly believe that a piece of paper cannot excuse my actions. I don’t think it works that way. I made some mistakes in my life and I have to live with them. I know people are fascinated by what I did between the ages of 16 and 21. But what amazes me is where my life went when I came out of prison. I try to do the right thing, and I hope that in the end I’ll be judged for that.”
Catch Me if You Can plays Denver’s Buell Theatre Feb 26-March 10. Tickets: 303.893.4100.
Tony-Award winning stage spectacle moves families, audience members to tears
By David Freeland
War Horse, the astounding theatrical experience opening this week at The Buell Theatre, exerts its pull from the moment the title character, Joey, first trots on stage as a foal, petted by his owner and best friend, 15-year old Albert. The audience gasps, aware that Joey is a puppet, not a real horse, but captivated by the way he shudders and whinnies at Albert’s loving touch. Joey’s lifelike eyes, shining and reflective, draw us into the soul of his journey; as the evening progresses, and Albert sets out to rescue Joey after he has been sold to the English cavalry, we find ourselves carried along and hoping for Joey to make it home.
It’s that kind of emotional power that has made War Horse an international phenomenon, sweeping up audiences and awards on both sides of the Atlantic and even inspiring an Oscar®-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg. War Horse won five 2011 Tony® Awards (including Best Play) for its New York premiere plus a Special Tony® Award for Handspring Puppet Company for creating the 11 puppets at the heart of the show.
“One of the things we like to imagine,” observes Basil Jones, who runs Handspring with co-founder Adrian Kohler, “is people in the audience nudging the person next to them, saying, ‘did you see that?’”
Set during the First World War, War Horse combines a powerful story with thrilling stagecraft and music. In addition, it showcases what may be the most inventive use of puppetry ever seen on stage. Soon after meeting him as a young horse, we watch in amazement as an adult Joey, seven feet tall, materializes before our eyes. Two puppet masters working inside Joey’s frame (built of light, malleable cane) raise and lower his torso, letting out forceful breaths, while a third manipulates his ears, lifting and pulling them back to register tender shades of emotion. Spielberg’s film version of War Horse employed real horses, but these onstage creations fully personalize equine ideals of courage, strength and loyalty in ways that reinforce the themes of the story.
“Spielberg made a terrific film,” enthuses Michael Morpurgo, upon whose beloved novel War Horse is based, “but cinema has its limitations. It isn’t live, and that’s the difference. What’s amazing about the stage show is that, whether it’s the music, design, or lighting, the puppets, the quality of acting or direction, it’s ingenious and unique. It’s a theatrical event.”
During World War I, more than one million horses were conscripted by the British military alone; of these, only 62,000 returned. As Joey is forced into battle, serving in both the British and German armies, we are moved by his bravery and the trust he places in those who exploit his strength. His innocence makes him seem above the fighting: in War Horse, animals behave with a dignity that humans do not always achieve. Still, Joey is unprepared for the true brutality of 20th century warfare. In a brilliant scene that defines the excitement of Act Two, he faces a new kind of foe: a massive tank rolling his way, prepared to flatten everything in its path. The scenic design is so visceral that we are rushed into battle alongside Joey, enveloped in the sound and smell of combat. Joey rears on his hind legs as the tank pitches toward him and the stage goes black.
“The First World War is emblematic,” suggests Mervyn Millar, War Horse’s puppetry director, “in the way the possibilities of destruction changed. You see Joey standing, looking at the tank, which advances without logic, without thought. Joey tries to work out what it means, what it wants, and it doesn’t want or mean anything. It just destroys.”
Joey’s plight resonates with anyone who has ever loved an animal or taken a pet into the family. As Albert continues his search, we are reminded of the ways in which animals remain with us through many stages of our lives, giving much and asking for little.
“People emotionally invest in animals,” Millar believes. “I think everyone can empathize with Joey.”
Determined to save his friend, Albert runs away from home with the hope of getting close to the front. But in trying to rescue one family member, he hurts another, leaving behind a mother anxious with worry. War Horse’s relevance comes from our awareness that, nearly a century after the start of the First World War, families are still being separated by armed conflict.
“We talk a lot about the history of the war,” remarks Chris Harper, producer for the National Theatre of Great Britain (which first staged War Horse in London), “but at the heart of the show it’s just a family, struggling to deal with life. The thing that’s exciting about War Horse is that it appeals to lots of generations. We see grandparents bringing their kids, wanting to explain the history from their own personal journeys with World War II or more recent conflicts. It’s a production that brings the family together.”
Will Albert find Joey in time? As War Horse reaches its beautiful climax, the hopes of parents, children, and beloved friends – both onstage and off – merge into a shared experience, as tissues are drawn from pockets and eyes glisten with tears.
“We get people coming back again and again,” Harper explains, “and they always have the same reaction. It awakens something in you. War Horse makes grown people cry.”