Bill Murray visits Philly with a high-brow variety show and a caffeinated cure-all: 'You'll be ready to peel varnish off walls'

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Bill Murray and Jan Vogler perform at the Kimmel Center April 4.

Try getting them off the stage.

Once actor Bill Murray and cellist Jan Vogler start building momentum in their concerts, they can’t stop.

On their current “Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends” tour of music, song, poetry, and prose  – which arrives at the Academy of Music on April 4 — they have developed 10 possible encores beyond their current Decca Gold album, New Worlds. “They [audiences] can’t get rid of us. Once you achieve that glow and get the affirmation, you don’t want to stop,” said Murray.

Or, as he told the Carnegie Hall audience in October, “I know a lot of you would like to leave. But the four of us have nowhere to go.”

“The encores keep growing — new songs from the Great American Songbook and just things we just want to play,” said Vogler.

After meeting on an airplane, the two worked together on a concert format that could only have been stumbled upon rather than invented. Examples: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn accompanied by “Moon River.” And James Thurber’s speculative, comic account of an inebriated Ulysses S. Grant negotiating the end to the Civil War accompanied by Ravel’s woozy, blues-influenced Violin Sonata.

Words and music come from different worlds, but they seem made for each other. One critic called the show A Prairie Home Companion for the tuxedo set.

Not widely known is that Murray is active in poetry circles. He is often seen at the annual Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge that’s held every summer by Poets House, a 70,000-volume library in New York.

But most of the credit for devising the show goes to the German-born cellist Vogler, who is not only a widely traveled soloist but director of the Dresden Music Festival that periodically presents the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour.

The first question is what to call them. I’m safely on a first-name basis with Vogler, but Murray? “Why don’t you call me Dr. Murray,” he playfully suggested.

Like any good doctor, he had a prescription:  “You sound like your blood sugar is going down. Go out and get affogato. It’s vanilla gelato drowned in hot espresso. After that, you’ll be ready to peel varnish of walls.”

You guys are out there on stage being yourselves –  with no movie characters or big orchestra concertos. What versions of yourselves do you choose to present?

Murray: I really try to get out of the way and just let the material come through my feet and out my mouth. The music is so influential in every word that I speak on stage. I get to listen and then when I speak I’m recharged.

The words I’m speaking are so demanding that you can’t phone it in. You can’t walk through this stuff. It’s a very exciting couple of hours. My eyeballs are wobbling a little when I’m finished. You don’t always understand what’s passing through you. You’re just the vehicle.

Vogler: We inspire each other on stage to not get in the way with our own egos. I’ve never been to a classical concert where the crowd gets that excited. It’s all good music and good literature. We’re not catching the audience with tricks.

Murray: People don’t see it coming. They think it’s going to be dry, something you have to get for school credit. I enjoy the moment when we look at each other and think, ‘Now we’re going to kill them.’

How did you come up with the selections?

Vogler: Both of us had a horror of delivering a low-energy evening … so Bill sang all the melodies he could remember from classical and popular music. Then we got the idea to arrange the most famous songs from West Side Story.

Murray: Jan grew up in East Germany, reading American literature written in German. I went to his place, met his lovely and talented wife, Mira, and he had a big stack of American literature. And I thought they were pretty good guesses for a guy who grew up under Communism.

Vogler: You know Franz Schubert was on his deathbed reading James Fenimore Cooper.

How has the show morphed as the tour goes on?

Murray: I used to be a soprano and wear thigh-high boots. I don’t do that anymore.

But you do sing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, and that’s written for a female character.

Murray: And that [performance] changes all the time. Jan is always thinking. That’s the problem with Germans. They’re always making a plan.

The tempo of the song changes my whole body and the way I speak the words. It becomes a completely different song. Now I’m playing it as somebody who is just about to explode with the excitement of being in love.

You do “(I like to be in) America” in the more prickly Broadway lyrics rather than the film version. This was in your repertoire before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. But the issues that it raised – plus the immigrant controversy – gives new meaning to the lyric “Puerto Rico’s in America”

Murray: The musicality of the song is shaking you by the shoulders. And then that lyric hits you. Your ribs are pulled open. And there’s a roar that comes out of the audience. A guttural animal roar.

What can you do for an encore after that? And what encore might you do in Philadelphia?

Vogler: “Loch Lomond.” It’s a beautiful Scottish song [about lost love]. We do it as a sing-along. It’s the one with the lyrics, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road.” And then I go off to Amsterdam to play the Brahms Double Concerto.

And what’s it like going back to strictly classical music after this?

Vogler: Bill says, “You classical musicians play so many notes.” And it’s really true. But there can be only a few important notes. You can’t forget the important notes.

Dr. Murray, what will you do when you finish your current set of dates?

Murray: I’ve got a good job coming up. Brace yourself: It’s a zombie movie.

Jim Jarmusch has written a zombie script that’s so hilarious and it has a cast of great actors: Rosie Perez, Daniel Craig. It’s titled The Dead Don’t Die, and it shoots over the summer. But, no, I will not play a zombie.

(Murray’s latest release, the Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs, opens in Philly March 28.)

I imagine your concert tours will continue.

Vogler: We could record another album. We have 10 encores.

Murray: There’s talk of a Broadway run.

Before you go, I want to know where you guys most reveal your real selves. Jan, let’s say, what part of the Ravel Violin Sonata is most like you?

Vogler: After General Grant takes off his sword and mistakenly surrenders to Robert E. Lee. It’s the absurdity of the piece. And then the music just lets go. Many composers forget about letting go.

And Dr. Murray….

Murray: You can call me Bill.

Thanks! Bill, at what stage is your Groundhog Day character most like you?

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Bill Murray in “Groudhog Day”

Murray: The part where he gets pretty far along with the girl and then blows it at the very end. I feel that’s my life. I do pretty well and then I do something so disappointing and so mind-bogglingly stupid.

Let’s not end on a low note. Tell me about touring together. I know it’s not as much fun as it looks.

Vogler:  We try to get in touch with every place. In Chicago, we had the most beautiful day. We went to a Cubs game. We went to a museum.

Murray: But now we have to rehearse. Jan’s wife, Mira, is from China. Jan grew up in East Germany. So I’ve got two Communists staring at me …

IN CONCERT

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds

  • Philadelphia performance, also featuring violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez, at the Academy of Music 7:30 p.m. April 4. Tickets: $45-$125. Information: 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org. The concert will also be performed 7:30 p.m. April 5 at the Matthews Theatre in the McCarter Center in Princeton. Information: 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.