The Capitol Steps tackle the nation’s political problems one nonpartisan poke at a time.
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Mike Tilford as Pope Francis, Mike Thornton as Hugh Jim Becile, Mike Carruthers as the late Kim Jong II, Morgan Duncan as President Obama, Janet Gordon explaining the facets of Obamacare, Elaina Newport as herself.
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Virginia's gubernatorial candidates are fortunate that the Capitol Steps reserve their satirical barbs for federal politicians and national news. Otherwise, Messrs. McAuliffe and Cuccinelli would be ripe for skewering when the renowned comedy troupe brings its successful brand of satire from Washington, D.C., to the Commonwealth this fall with two performances leading up to the Nov. 5 election.
Consider, for instance, how the Steps handled various topics-du-jour during one of its regular weekend shows in the District this summer. Performances are as low-tech as they are fast-paced. Backed by a lone keyboardist, and with no real scenery to speak of, five of the troupe’s 31 members took turns singing songs and donning silly costumes to the delight of a clearly appreciative audience at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Impersonations ranged from British royals and a Somalian pirate to a National Security Agency official dressed in a dark suit, sunglasses and a head-mounted “satellite dish” that had been hastily, cheekily fashioned from a stainless steel vegetable steamer. Familiar melodies and stinging one-liners abounded. Leave it to the Steps to find fun beneath serious issues such as domestic surveillance, immigration reform, the sluggish economy and the unpredictable leadership of North Korea.
In an early sketch, unnamed Republican members of Congress debate how to boost their appeal among women and minorities to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Unable to decide, they state the obvious: “Let’s deny Barack a third term. That’s something we could win!”
They’re replaced onstage by President Obama, who says people often ask him how to start a small business in a down economy. “And here’s your answer: You start a big business ... and you wait.” (Guffaws follow.)
Then an Al Jazeera network executive announces “big plans to expand our audience of American infidels.” The network’s sitcoms, he quips, soon will include Allah in the Family, Everybody Loves Ramadan and How I Met Your Mullah.
Whether you’re laughing or groaning, rest assured this has been the Steps’ tongue-in-cheek, irreverently nonpartisan approach toward current events since the group was formed in December 1981 by three Capitol Hill senatorial staffers—Elaina Newport, Jim Aidala and the late Bill Strauss, who died in 2007. These days, many of the group’s members boast prior experience in theater, improvisational comedy or music composition. Far from remaining an “inside the Beltway” phenomenon, the group now performs around the country and has been featured on national TV and radio shows, including Good Morning America, Nightline and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Based in Alexandria, the group also has released dozens of albums (its latest is Fiscal Shades of Gray) and performed for five U.S. presidents (Ford, Clinton, Reagan and both Bushes). Reagan, always the showman, cracked the group up when he joined them onstage following their performance and said, “Thank you very much, Capitol Steps. Now you’re all under arrest.”
Longtime Steps fan Jan Du Plain gushed about the group moments before a recent show at the Reagan Building. “It’s such a brilliant concept,” says Du Plain, president and CEO of Falls Church-based public relations firm Du Plain Enterprises. “If they hadn’t done it, it would have had to be done, because we need laughter in the nation’s capital.”
Possibly even more impressive than the Steps’ live performances is how quickly the group prepares and memorizes new material.
Early each week, Newport, one of the troupe’s founding members, brainstorms with Mark Eaton, who joined the Steps in 1993, to write new lyrics to hit pop songs and old standards. They email the lyrics to the rest of the troupe on Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ll say, ‘Here are the words. Do you know the tune? If not, look it up on YouTube,’” Newport explains. The troupe’s only full rehearsal takes place 90 minutes before showtime each Friday night.
“It’s a fast turnaround business,” Eaton says. Newport goes further: “It’s very terrifying for the first couple of years in the group. Then they get used to it. People ask us if our show is improvised. I say, ‘Not if we remember the words!’”
William Biddle can attest to the fact that jokes about national news and politicians go over well outside D.C. He is executive director of the Ferguson Center for the Arts at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, where the Capitol Steps are slated to perform Nov. 2—for the third time in nine seasons.
“Each year on surveys,” Biddle says, “people ask us to bring them back.”
(In a small-world connection, the Steps’ Eaton worked in the 1980s for then-Senator Paul Trible Jr., now president of CNU.)
It’s anybody’s guess which politicians and events will make headlines this fall and provide fodder for the Steps. At a summer show, jokes about disgraced New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner were a given, as was a monologue by a gumshoe-style private detective hired to track down NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The recession has been rough, the detective complained. “I’ve been working less than Paula Deen during Black History Month.”
The same show poked fun at Vice President Joe Biden for a tendency to say too much, too soon. Wielding a fake guitar, he was joined onstage by House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and “Mr. Excitement,” Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. To laughter and applause, the unlikely trio reworked Lyin’ Eyes by the Eagles into Ain’t No Way to Hide This Biden Guy.
Politicians rarely complain about being the butt of the Steps’ jokes, Newport says. They’ve been more often aggravated when they’re not featured in a song.
“A lot of these guys invite us to perform or have, over the years, come to shows,” she adds. “I think they realize having a sense of humor is important with voters.”
The Capitol Steps perform Friday and Saturday nights at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. They will perform in Virginia at the Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen Sept. 7 and at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News Nov. 2. For a complete performance schedule, go to CapSteps.com