Spotting Bill Murray where he’s least expected has become something of a pastime.
In recent years, he’s given a toast at a stranger’s bachelor party in South Carolina, tended bar at the South by Southwest festival in Texas and crashed a New York City kickball game, to name a few instances. He even took the podium at the White House press briefing in 2016 to talk about the Chicago Cubs.
On Friday, Murray’s streak of confounding expectations continues in Baltimore. At the Hippodrome Theatre, Murray will perform “New Worlds” — a celebration of classic American music and literature that finds the 67-year-old actor singing “West Side Story” and Van Morrison songs, and reciting passages from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The show — which was first an album of the same name, released in 2017 — sprinkles in light moments, but it is not a comedy.
Murray’s dedication to “New Worlds” was evident from the beginning, said the German-born cellist Jan Vogler, Murray’s friend and creative partner on the project.
“The greatest surprise in the beginning was when we had the idea for the show, and how much Bill loved working on this,” said Vogler, who joined the phone interview with Murray from his home in New York. “It was a real big storm of inspiration, I would call it.”
In “New Worlds,” violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez join Murray and Vogler to explore American values, and how these works still resonate today. Earlier this week, Murray — calling in while on the road in North Carolina — discussed the project, the political climate and more.
When did you first fall in love with this material?
A lot of this music I fell in love with the first time I heard it. I remember hearing Henry Mancini as a kid. Certainly, the first time I heard “Porgy and Bess,” I thought, “My gosh, where does that come from? That’s unbelievable.” And I’ve been in love with Van Morrison since I heard him in college. He did write “Gloria,” which is my go-to number if I have to perform with a rock ’n’ roll band. The most classical pieces — the [Johann Sebastian] Bach, [Franz] Schubert and [Astor] Piazzolla — they speak for themselves.
What is it about these songs and passages that continues to resonate with you?
You kind of have to see it to believe it. I can talk about it, but I would say people who talk about what they’re doing, when they get too mental about it and try to put into words what is really an emotional delivery, they fail. People who write about music generally fall short of the actual listening to it, you know? You show me a music critic and I’ll show you someone who’s a whole lot duller than the show they saw last night.
But I think the themes of America are the inclusiveness. The crazy thing about America was it was a democracy. It was a nation of immigrants. Everyone was an immigrant. Only the Native Americans were here — everyone else that came was an immigrant, and that’s the history of the country. It’s kind of stunning. That’s one of the reasons other countries have been fascinated with America is that, “How did they get to agree on anything when there are so many different tribes involved?”
Should “New Worlds” be read or heard as a reaction to current events?
Well, it’s not a reaction to our present times. This music and this show existed before the moment of today. The politics of today – it’s like a juggler with knives. You’re watching this country juggle knives, and it’s kind of fun to see like, “Is this going to work? Is this going to be OK?” It’s this funny kind of thing that’s going on. But this music existed before that. The feeling and the spirit of America existed before that. We’re not writing anything new here.
But we’ve assembled some very iconic pieces of Americana, and the effect it seems to have is to remind people of where we began, what the pioneers were thinking, what the original musical pioneers and what the literary pioneers were talking about when they spoke about America. And those things are eternally true. Moment to moment, people forget them, but they’re eternally true.
Before a show, how do you know when you’re ready to perform vocally? Do you have much of a warm-up process?
The basic thing is to not wreck yourself. Your voice is a beautiful thing. Everyone has a great voice. If you open it up, you’re able to make sounds that please other people and please yourself. You’re able to actually touch the emotional center of yourself if you can allow your breath to get down to where your emotions are. If you sing like that, if you warm yourself up and get yourself ready to go and you’re physically self-contained, you can make a beautiful sound. If you’re singing beautifully composed music, you can be a shower singer and sound nice.
Switching gears, “Isle of Dogs” [the animated movie in which Murray voices a character named Boss] was just released. Can we expect to see you on the big screen this year?
This “Isle of Dogs” is really good. I suggest that you see it. [Wes Anderson is] really a great filmmaker, and there’s never been anything quite like this one. … Then I’m going to make a movie with Jim Jarmusch. I’ve worked with him a couple times before. He’s a great American director. He’s written a zombie film, so this will be my second zombie film. I’m very excited. He’s got the greatest cast of actors — I can’t believe it — and we’re all doing a zombie movie together. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
You’re a known Cubs fan, so I have to ask before you go: How do you like their chances this season?
Oh, I’m very confident. I think they’re going to be the World Series champions again. I like their team. It’s all about staying healthy, and if they’re healthy, I think they’ll play in October. So I’m looking forward to it. The manager, Joe Maddon, is a lot of fun. It’s a nice ballpark. Camden Yards, to me, is the only ballpark that compares to Wrigley Field. It’s the only one that has the kind of vibe that I really like. They’re my two favorites.
This interview has been edited and condensed.