As Bill Murray squired a violinist and pianist to the Jones Hall stage, one on each arm, the performer got a laugh just by the way he walked in. It was pure Murray, something about the face, the shoulders, the stride, the confidence. He was just himself, and the audience in Monday night’s packed house was thrilled.
After all, he's a legendary comedian, and he really is that good. This stop on Murray’s New Worlds tour, here presented by the Houston Symphony, was one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen in my life. Can Murray sing? No, of course not. But it didn’t matter a smidge.
As a true Murray enthusiast—the kind who loves every iteration, from SNL to Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Rushmore, the A Very Murray Christmas Netflix special, and just about everything in between—I thought I knew what I was getting into when I settled into my plush red seat. I knew how Murray and famed German cellist Jan Vogler met going through airport security where Murray expressed his surprise that the musician could lug his instrument onto the plane with him. On the subsequent trans-Atlantic flight, the pair became friends and set out to create something entirely new and distinct, pulling in gifted violinist Mira Wang (also Vogler’s wife) and renowned pianist Vanessa Perez for the 2017 New Worlds album.
The New Worlds program bills the evening as an exploration of music and literature, a concert that would demonstrate “how American writers, actors and musicians have built bridges between America and Europe.” But that description, as intriguing as it is, doesn’t begin to do the experience justice.
Murray kicked things off by reading an excerpt of George Plimpton’s Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway, the bit where Plimpton asks if Hemingway ever played a musical instrument. Murray read Hemingway’s reply that his mother demanded he learn cello, and everything—his voice, his posture, his energy under the unwavering stage lights—became the writer.
Then Vogler walked on and launched into Bach’s Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. The audience, eager to laugh and respond to whatever comedy Murray threw down just a moment before, was instead plunged into one of those instances of transcendent beauty that can’t be faked, that demands you listen and look and be completely present. The guy next to me snuffled softly, and dragged his shirtsleeve across his face. Then the show continued, and we all laughed again.
Yet apparently not every audience has gotten the memo on what this show is about. About 20 minutes in, between excerpts of Walt Whitman and a nice pairing of James Fenimore Cooper and Franz Schubert, Murray asked the audience to stay with him. “This is the moment where people start to get up and leave. We do the research, and this is when they go,” he explained. “I wouldn’t blame you one bit, but I promise the worst is over.”
Anyone foolish enough to bail missed a melding of music, literature, acting, and performance art that felt like something entirely new and so very much needed. The selections, both literary and musical, were all over the map, drawing from different eras and pairing works that complemented each other against all expectations. All told, the nearly two-hour set ranged from a group singalong of Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to sidesplitting excerpts of James Thurber to renditions of Ravel, Piazzolla, Shostakovitch, Mancini, and Bernstein. Murray even tangoed with Wang.
Political movements were there, too. When a “Moon River”/Adventures of Huckleberry Finn mashup reached the moment when Huck decides to save Jim, the runaway slave, it was impossible not to feel smacked in the gut with emotion. And then, minutes later, in the middle of West Side Story’s “America,” Murray managed a hairpin turn as he lurched from getting the laughs to pointedly emphasizing the lyric that “Puerto Rico is in America.” The crowd, cackling moments before, erupted in spontaneous applause at this statement of fact.
That was supposed to be the end, but then Murray and company came back onstage. They performed “Loch Lomond” and ribbed the Houston Astros crowd by singing “Go Cubs Go” (Murray is a passionate Chicago baseball fan). They gave renditions of “My Girl” and “El Paso,” and then Murray walked out into the audience and flung long-stemmed red roses.
It really was a momentous thing to witness this show. The crew onstage played so many encores I lost count, but when a couple finally dared to exit my aisle, someone actually whispered, “They’d better be leaving for a real emergency, like death. There’s no other excuse.” Maybe that was a bit harsh, but performances like this one don't happen every day. With tenderness, twistiness, comedy, and pathos, Murray et al gave a performance that defies definition. They did it with joy, with flare, and in a way that illuminated the human condition. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.