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Peter Sagal talks about 'Candide' and 'Wait Wait'

Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me," who will narrate the BSO's semi-staging of Bernstein's "Candide."
Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me," who will narrate the BSO's semi-staging of Bernstein's "Candide." (Andrew Collings / HANDOUT)

There will be two unmistakable voices during the BSO's performances of "Candide" this week: Leonard Bernstein's, which comes through every note of his prismatic score; and Peter Sagal's, known to the many fans of "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" on NPR.

Since 1998, the dry-witted Sagal has hosted that radio show, which brings together panelists and various guests for droll quizzes about the week's news. Turns out the host is not just interested in the headlines.

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"I like to say I am the most prominent heterosexual musical theater geek," the Chicago-based Sagal says. "That claim is hard to prove, but who's going to want to disprove it?"

He's an admirer of Bernstein's stage works, including "Candide." Sagal was happy to accept an invitation to narrate the BSO's semi-staging of the piece from a friend, director Garnett Bruce.

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"Like all people with absolutely no musical talent," Sagal says, "it has always been my dream to star on the orchestral stage. I've narrated [Prokofiev's] 'Peter and the Wolf' for two small orchestras. I like to think of [the BSO appearance] as my major metropolitan orchestra debut — I've played the regions; now I'm ready for the big time. But this won't be my debut in these concert halls: 'Wait Wait' has been done at both Meyerhoff and Strathmore."

The narration for "Candide" is meant to help audiences follow the complications of the plot and substitute for some of the original dialogue.

The text Sagal will read "has been carefully vetted and approved and licensed," he says. "At the same time, I am me, and I want to bring some of the personality I've established on radio to it. [Bruce and I] would like to make it a distinct experience for the audience."

So far, the only problem between director and narrator has had to do with pronunciation. "Garnett gave me an angry look when I said 'Bern-steen," Sagal say. "I now know its pronounced 'Bern-styne.'"

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As for his regular gig, Sagal chalks up the longtime success of "Wait Wait" to a simple reason.

"It's because we do and say things that we think are funny, and enough people share our sense of humor. That's really it," he says. "It's about odd stories, goofy stories. I get on the air with my panelists and we let our hair down, which, in my case, is completely metaphorical. It's a wonderful respite. There are a lot people doing important work at NPR. That's not us. We're the nation's coffee break."

The need for a break from straight news is continual.

"There is so much rancor in the media now, particularly because feeding people's anger is profitable," Sagal says. "News can be angering and can increase your tension level. I won't mention any names, but a lot of news organizations have a business model designed to increase your anger and tension level. One of the things I really like about our show is that we are not participants in these wars. We're all in the arena, but we're up in the stands, elbowing you in the ribs going, 'Hey, isn't that crazy.'"

For the folks at "Wait Wait," any craziness is up for discussion, whatever political side it comes from.

"We have spent more time making fun of Republicans than Democrats, but for the life of our show, Republicans have been funnier," Sagal says. "And I hear from people who say, 'I'm a conservative and I love your show.' If someone's behaving in a goofy way, it's not really about the person's politics. I want to give a big middle finger to this culture where everything you say has to be taken politically."

Many a celebrity from arts, sports and government has appeared as a guest on the show, but Sagal has a wish list.

"Amy Poehler won't be on our show for some reason," he says. "If she reads the Baltimore Sun: 'Amy Poehler, come be on our show.' There have been three presidents during the run of show: Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. We've had two. I would love to have George W. Bush on the show, out of fairness, out of completion. So if he reads the Baltimore Sun for arts coverage, which he should, I hope he heeds our call."

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