This may come as almost no surprise, but it can be a little hard to tell when Bill Murray is just joking around.
Take, for example, his answer to our question about whether he stayed in close communication with German cellist Jan Vogler, Chinese violinist Mira Wang and Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez during the quartet’s recent six-week break from their unique show, titled “New Worlds.”
“Well, I refused to acknowledge these people during those six weeks, ‘cause they’re all about work. They just want to work all the time,” deadpans Murray, the 68-year-old entertainer much better known for movies like “Lost in Translation” and “Groundhog Day” than for hanging out on stage with a bunch of classical musicians. “So I ignored them. I tried to ignore everyone. And I had better success this year than ever before. Anyway, it was a really nice August. I didn’t answer the phone; I didn’t answer the doorbell. I actually sort of resembled myself in the mirror after a few weeks.”
Vogler — who’s riding in a car with Murray on the way from a last-minute rehearsal at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md., to run errands — can be heard laughing over the speakerphone. That settles it, then: He’s joking.
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At the same time, Murray is clearly very serious about “New Worlds,” the 2017 album that blends musical and lyrical interpretations of works by writers and composers including Twain, Hemingway, Whitman, Cooper, Bernstein, Bach, Piazzolla, Mancini, Gershwin and Foster. That album inspired a 2018 world tour that has been criss-crossing the country and skipping across the ocean since March.
The show — formally titled “Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, and Friends: New Worlds” — comes to Belk Theater courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts on Tuesday night.
Still trying to wrap your head around the concept? The interview we conducted with Murray and Vogler a few hours before their D.C.-area show last Friday afternoon should help explain a lot. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Q: I assume you guys have told the story of how you met probably 10,000 times, so I also assume you’ve got it down perfect by now. Which means I’m gonna get the most perfect version ever told, right?
Vogler: (Laughs.) Yeah, I’ll let Bill tell the story.
Murray: Well, wait, if it’s gotta be perfect, I think you should tell the story. Go ahead.
Vogler: (Laughs.) So we met at the airport in Berlin, my hometown. This was 2013, five years ago. I was coming home to New York — I live in New York — after a long tour, and Bill was doing a movie in Germany (2014’s “Monuments Men”) and was going home on a break. We were going through security and Bill was wondering about the box I was carrying and — he tells the story really better than me. Maybe you want to continue from here, Bill?
Murray: Well, I was just a little curious (about his cello). I said, “How’re you gonna be able to fit that thing into the overhead?” He looked at me real strange and said, “Sir, it has its own seat. In first class. It has a window seat in first class, as a matter of fact. The guy carrying it’s just a stooge. He’s just a guy carrying the cello.” So it started off like that, with me exposing my stupidity.
Vogler: Then ... when we came to the plane, the cello was sitting on the window seat, I was sitting next to it, and across the aisle was Bill. That’s a big coincidence that we were both going through security at the same time and then we ended up sitting next to each other on the plane.
Q: Jan, do you do that all the time, buy a first-class ticket for your cello?
Vogler: Yeah, yeah. I mean, my cello is more important than me.
Q: So Jan, were you aware that this person across the aisle was famous?
Vogler: (Laughs.) No, I was not.
Murray: It was kind of funny. I mean, Jan really didn’t know who the hell I was. It was just, the stewardess kept talking to me, and ... I think he got up and acted like he was using the restroom and asked her, “Who’s the guy sitting next to me?” And she told him. Then he came back and instantly said, “Hey, are there any of your films in there (on the in-flight movie player)?” So I found a film of mine for him.
Vogler: There were 180 films or something — a lot of films — but he flipped through them very quickly. I mean, it took him maybe seconds to find a film of his.
Murray: Well, I could avoid the horror and fantasy genres pretty much. I mean, there were some things I could avoid. It wasn’t that hard.
Vogler: (Laughs.) He went to comedy right away.
Q: So what was the movie?
Vogler: “Stripes.” Wonderful film. I could not believe that I had missed that for so many years. Super-funny.
Q: Bill, did you watch it, too?
Murray: Uh, no. I saw that he was watching it across the aisle. I didn’t want be laughing in advance of the jokes. “Oh, you’re gonna love this one! Hang onto your seat — this is a good one!” I didn’t wanna be that guy.
Q: By the way, Bill, had you heard of Jan before? Were you familiar with his name?
Murray: I’d heard the name Jan, but not attached to Vogler, no. (Vogler laughs.)
Q: OK, so what was next? You guys traded contact information?
Murray: Yeah, which is very unusual for me. But I was working on this film in Germany, and (when I was back over there), he invited me to a show he was doing in Dresden. ... That was a concert with the New York Philharmonic and Joshua Bell, then we went out afterward. And it was fun. I was very surprised to find that the classical types actually have any fun at all. I thought theirs was simply a life of misery. (Vogler laughs.) But we had a lot of fun that night, and that just sort of propelled things forward.
Vogler: We had a friendship for two years and no plans to work together. Really, we had this idea when I saw Bill singing in “The Jungle Book” — I was seeing the film with my kids, and he was singing wonderfully. And then Bill invited me to the Poetry Walk in New York, where I heard him recite Whitman, and that kind of sparked the idea (for “New Worlds”). ... I mean, when I heard Bill reading this Whitman poem at the Poetry Walk, I thought that was the best poetry reading I had ever seen. It really became 3D. You could walk around it and could look at it like a piece of art in the middle of the room. I think that’s really what great poetry is. It gets a bigger than the words itself. And you’re going to experience that, if you come to the show.
Q: Bill, have you always been interested in poetry — and in classical music — or are these two newer passions for you?
Murray: Well, classical music always fascinated me, because I couldn’t understand how someone could be disciplined enough to write it. (Vogler laughs.) And poetry is something that I warmed to as a child. I even wrote poetry as a child, although it’s all been tastefully burned. Then when I was about 25 or 30, a friend of mine asked me to start reading things, reading poetry, and I developed a knack for it. I really embraced it. Now I love to read poems. I love to read them aloud. I find them to be the most challenging things to read — and the most satisfying when you get it right. ... And the poetry in our show is key, because it stands alone, so it has its own power. It’s so direct, and so immediately comprehensible, because it’s spoken directly to the audience. I’ve been fortunate to read these great poems in the show, and it gives us a real nice foundation.
Vogler: That’s right. The music and the poetry or literature are the scaffolding of the show. Then there’s the humor. And the singing (by Murray), where basically everybody’s making music at the same time.
Murray: We’ve got great composers and great poets and writers, and we just stand on top of that stuff and play it as well as we can. You kind of can’t miss. The stuff is so good, and our musicians are so crazily talented, that the audience is just smitten with the material. ... And the material’s so rich that we can find something new every single night. Even if we’re doing the same pieces, it’s completely different than it was yesterday. Because we just walk in as a different person — as a different sort of being standing there doing the material — and the material, it says, “Come and get me.”
Q: Jan, what do you think of Bill’s singing?
Vogler: Bill is a great singer. He has incredible (versatility). You will see him sing something very classical, like “Genie With the Light Brown Hair,” and Van Morrison, and even maybe if you are lucky, John Prine.
Q: Bill, what do you think of Jan’s cello-playing?
Murray: I mean, he’s able to hear all the other instruments and the speaker at the same time. It’s a very large sphere of attention ... so I feel like I’m getting an immediate response from him — I know he’s hearing everything I’m doing. And the most important thing is that he’s paying attention to my work. That’s what really matters. As for his playing? He plays OK. It’s not great. He’s just OK. (Vogler laughs.) I’ll be like, “That was great. But not so loud next time, Jan; thank you.” You’ll see it when you see it. And you’ll go, “Oh, OK. Bill was right. He’s not that bad.”
‘Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, and Friends: New Worlds’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.