The Capitol Steps are bringing their latest road show of topical, irreverent ditties, brought to life by costume changes, choreography, and a razor-sharp musical team in their latest ode to political dysfunction, “Orange is the New Barack to Saginaw’s Temple Theatre on Saturday, September 15th at 7:30 PM.
Taking their inspirational cue from such political humor pioneers as Tom Lehrer, Alan Sherman and MAD Magazine, the irreverent comedy troupe known as The Capitol Steps began over 30 years ago as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them. Ignoring the conventional wisdom of such sage advice as ‘Don’t quit your day job’; while not all current members of ground-breaking comedy troupe are former Capitol Hill staffers, collectively the performers have worked in a total of eighteen Congressional offices and represent 62-years of cumulative House and Senate staff experience.
Since the beginning of their career, The Capitol Steps have recorded over 35 albums and been featured on NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS, in addition to being heard twice a year on National Public Radio stations nationwide during their ‘Politics Takes a Holiday’ radio specials.
Born in December, 1981 when some staffers for Senator Charles Percy were planning entertainment for a Christmas Party, Ronald Reagan was President at the time, and co-founders Elaina Newport, Bill Strauss and Jim Aidala figured if entertainers could become politicians, then politicians could become entertainers.
According to co-founder Elaina Newport, their first idea was to stage a nativity play, but in the whole Congress they couldn't find three wise men or a virgin! Consequently, they decided to dig into the headlines of the day, and created song parodies & skits which conveyed a special brand of satirical humor that was as popular in Peoria as it was on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Most cast members have worked on Capitol Hill; some for Democrats, some for Republicans, and others for politicians who firmly straddle the fence. No matter who holds office, there's never a shortage of material. Says Elaina Newport, "Typically the Republicans goof up, and the Democrats party. Then the Democrats goof up and the Republicans party. That's what we call the two-party system."
As I commence my interview with Elaina Newport, advising her that my tape recorder is rolling, she points out how I’m “recording like Michael Cohen and all the others”; at which point I point out that I learned all my own personal techniques from Rosemary Woods, former President Nixon’s secretary whose deft work with recording devices led to the infamous Watergate hearings.
As Plato noted, ‘action defines character’ and undeniably, political satire is based around individual actions. One sad and undeniable truth is that since the election of Donald Trump, politics has become more divisive than ever, with intolerance on both sides of the aisle causing severe damage to the art of discourse. Has Elaina noticed an increase in heckling at Capitol Steps shows since the last presidential election? More importantly, what are her thoughts on the best way to restore sanity to our national dialectic?
“We haven’t noticed more heckling, but definitely became concerned about it after this last election and were unsure if we’d get people coming that wouldn’t find some of the routines funny, or be able to laugh,” she confesses. “It’s harder now, but more importantly I hope we serve a purpose in showing that maybe people could get along a little better if they could laugh at both sides of the political spectrum.”
How daunting is it to continuously come up with fresh and relevant material; and who does most of the writing for Capitol Steps? “The news cycle goes so fast and a perfect example is with Omarosa. Is she going to be funny in two weeks? Certain things in our show have a longer shelf-life; and right now we’re reviewing the Paul Manafort song because that can go either way, so I wrote two versions of it. Two of us do most of the writing, but the cast members always come up with ideas that we also work into the show.”
“One of the funny things with Capitol Steps is you can’t imagine auditioning for it. People come in and are accustomed to traditional theatrical auditions, where they’ll have a beautiful song prepared. We’ll listen and then say, ‘Now can you do that like Kim Jong would sing it? We don’t have a lot of turnover with the cast because it’s sort of a fun dream job.”
Seeing as Elaina became a founding member of Capitol Steps back when Reagan was president, what are the biggest changes she’s noticed in the arc of the Washington landscape over the past three decades; or has gridlock created a situation where entropy has set in and things are pretty much the same as when she started?
“Things are definitely worse in Washington now,” she laments. “When I was working with Sen. Percy there would be more co-sponsorship on legislation, but now things are much more partisan. I’m hoping the pendulum will swing back because I’m an extreme moderate. People laugh when I say that, but I feel the middle is usually right.”
What’s the funniest incident Elaina has ever built a sketch around?
“A couple years ago I would have said the Clinton years were the Golden Age, especially with the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” she reflects. “We did a whole show on that once, but this current administration is keeping up with that; only it’s not just one incident anymore, it’s a persona - nobody else could make us that persona.”
Are there some areas that The Capitol Steps can’t touch upon that are taboo topics?
“The only thing is tragedy,” she concludes. “We don’t go where people have been involved in natural disasters or bombings. A good example is with Hurricane Katrina. It was the only thing in the news for a couple of weeks and it was not funny in the least, but the politicians that were sort of screwing it up and organizations like FEMA were fair game, along with all the political things happening around it. It’s ironic that even in the most serious of incidents, there’s usually a politician screwing it up that you can write a song about.”
The Capitol Steps appear at The Temple Theatre on Saturday, September 15th at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $45, $30, $25, and $20 and can be purchased online at www.templetheatre.com or by phoning 800.585.3737.