Bill Murray: “You have a short life, this is yours, live it”

As concert movie 'New Worlds: The Cradle Of Civilization' hits cinemas, Andrew Trendell catches up with the actor and his acclaimed cellist buddy Jan Vogler

The sight of Bill Murray singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ from West Side Story in front of the Acropolis wasn’t on our ‘must-see’ list for 2022, but trust us – it should be on yours.

The culmination of the comedy icon’s collaboration with celebrated cellist Jan Vogler, New Worlds: The Cradle Of Civilization captures the final night of their 2018 tour with the brilliant Mira Wang on violin and dynamic Vanessa Perez on piano. It’s a charming mix of classical music, spoken word pieces and songs from the likes of Tom Waits, Bruce Hornsby and Van Morrison – reflecting life, love, hope and heartbreak amidst some Ancient Greek majesty.

We caught up with the Ghostbusters legend and his cellist pal to hear more about their classical collab.

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Hello Bill and Jan! This is a pretty kooky show. How did it all begin?

Bill Murray: “Jan came up with the concept. He really shaped the show and put it together along with the cast of players. Everyone has the chance to shine and when we work together there’s a really powerful group energy that’s stronger than any of us individually.”

Jan Vogler: “I heard Bill in The Jungle Book and thought, ‘Wow, he can sing really beautifully!’ Then I heard him reciting Walt Whitman at a poetry gala and I loved how he put that poem in the room. So I thought that if he can sing and recite poetry so beautifully and I can play cello, then I know some other musicians and we can do something really exciting.”

What can you tell us about how you selected these pieces to perform?

BM: “Jan basically picked them all, I think I tossed in a few for the encore. What’s the German word for ‘stage pig’?”

JV:Rampensau

BM: “That’s a great word! It’s not like a stagehog in America, which has a negative connotation. A rampensau is a pig but once he’s on stage, you get used to him! So I picked the encores and some of the more popular pieces for that purpose, but the through line of the music was Jan’s doing. It starts off with a big thumping cello playing some Bach to say ‘Everybody shut up and listen’; then the emotions get a little wider and enunciated with words.”

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Bill Murray
Bill Murray and his cellist collaborator Jan Vogler. CREDIT: Peter Rigaud

Have you had any feedback from Tom Waits or Bruce Hornsby about your renditions?

BM: “No, I don’t think so. People always like to have their songs covered, I guess. It’s an honour. They’re beautiful. When you play the opening notes on that Bruce Hornsby number, there’s just this audible reaction to it from the audience. With the Tom Waits song, they don’t know it’s coming. They’re kind of surprised that we’re having that kind of fun. We have that kind of loony bin fun off-stage too, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.”

Jan, what’s it like being on the road with Bill Murray?

JV: “It was a time in my life that I’ll never forget. It was eye-opening! Classical musicians can be a little bit nerdy. If you’re playing a concerto for the 400th time then you want to get it right and you’re worrying about things that no one will ever notice when they hear it. I feel that this was something that I always dreamt of – to work with an artist from a different field and ask, ‘What is art really about?’”

So this wasn’t nerdy?

JV: “Definitely not! We got a big piece of life from those years of touring together. I’ll never be the same as a classical musician, I’ll take a little bit of this with me.”

Rehearsing at the Acropolis in Athens. CREDIT: Dorn Music

And Bill, did you feel the need to behave yourself a little bit being on the road with these people?

*At this point, Murray sits perfectly still to pretend that the Zoom has frozen*

BM: “I’m sorry, I always wanted to do that! Anyway, sometimes we’d come into a big show in a big city, and rather than try to over-rehearse, think more or pray, we’d go out and try to take in something – something artistic, rich and deeper than ourselves so we’d have that to bring to the audience. You’d see it in our playing.”

Did you cut loose a bit?

BM: “The most fun we had was a little RV trip. We had a long stretch of shows to do, so I said, ‘We could just drive’. We stuffed into my little RV, and I had a great collection of American music in the car which we played all the time. Life on the road is so much better than airports and taxis. It saved us a lot of time and money and the loneliness of going to your hotel room every night. It was a wonderful experience.”

Are you caravan people now?

BM: “Usually RV folks are coming out with belt buckles, suspenders and bellies, and we’d be stepping out with a couple of cellos.”

(L-R) pianist Vanessa Perez, Murray, Vogler and violinist Mira Wang. CREDIT: Peter Rigaud

What was it like to perform on that stage in Athens? Did you get anything different from it, spiritually?

BM: “You stand on the stage at the Acropolis, you look up and you see the temple all lit up and it’s a very powerful reminder. It says, ‘Hey, you have a short life, this is yours, live it because there have been a lot of people here before you and they’re gone’.”

Do you have plans to work together again?

BM: “We owe one show to some people that were very kind to us. They own a library up in Newport on Rhode Island.”

JV: “Yes, they need some help to raise some money to help this library thrive for future generations. We made a promise to play. Then we’ll see.”

‘New Worlds: Cradle Of Civilization’ is released in UK cinemas from March 22

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