In the more than three decades since getting their start at a Christmas party in Washington, D.C., the Capitol Steps have thrived on scandals, missteps and gaffes from politicians. With a seemingly endless supply of politicians to spoof and songs to parody, the group has produced nearly 40 musical satire albums and grown big enough that they can put on multiple shows in several locations. It's pretty impressive for a troupe that once worried about losing their day jobs.
Elaina Newport was a staffer for Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois when the Capitol Steps formed in 1981. Taking their name from a sex scandal earlier that year, the Steps were well-received around Washington. The group initially shied away from publicity out of concerns for job security but later embraced the buzz and turned pro, eventually leading to a gig at the Reagan White House.
"We thought they'd ask us to stop or fire us -- or both," Newport said over the phone earlier this month. Newport worked on Capitol Hill for seven years. "To the contrary, Percy, the senator we worked for when we started, invited us to his house to parties and was like, 'these are my cute little staffers.' The politicians themselves turned out to be good sports."
For about 15 years, one of the novelties of the Steps was that it was comprised exclusively of former staffers from Washington, D.C. Newport, who was a piano major in college before switching to business, said that by 1996 there was so much going on with President Bill Clinton that the group began hiring Washington-area performers.
"I think at this point we're about half and half -- half people who worked on the Hill and half who didn't. And that's a good mix; we give the really hard singing to the people who are the pros and the rest of us have the background, which is 'okay, we've been there and we know what it's like from the inside,' and I hope that shows in the material."
When it comes to material, there's a bit of a science to figuring out what political and pop-culture issues are ready to be lampooned. Newport said they try to steer clear of regulatory reform jokes and keep things accessible. "It's the front pages of the paper, it's the cover of whatever magazines are left, it's the lead story that pops up on your homepage, it's stuff that generally, if you know the major players, you'll get. We've resisted the temptation to be too inside, but sometimes we're not sure. We tried a conscious uncoupling joke last week and we weren't sure if people would get it, but they did."
However, there have been certain bits that didn't pan out like the group had hoped, such as a song about former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's infamous story of transporting his dog in a kennel on the roof of a car during a family road trip.
"It wasn't a huge story, but it was one of those weird stories," Newport said. "So I thought it would be very funny to dress one of our full-grown male performers in a dog suit and send him out on stage to sing 'Up on the Roof' -- the old Drifters song. I thought this could not miss and was very funny, because it's a weird story and a guy in a dog suit. What is not funny about this? Well, the audience just kind of stared at us. I figured out later, there are too many dog lovers out there or something. That was my theory. Maybe people hadn't heard the story, but I think it was more 'you can make fun of our politicians, but stay away from our dogs.'"
The Capitol Steps try to keep up with topical issues, but as anyone who follows the news knows, big stories don't always have an easy access point for humor. In cases like that -- Newport referenced Crimea specifically -- the group focuses on those in charge, because "in any serious issue, there's a politician messing something up."
It's not just the subject matter the group needs to be on top of; it's the songs they parody as well. Certainly, there are many well-known, classic tunes that the group uses, but the Steps are willing to get in on catchy new songs in the public zeitgeist. "I just wrote up a song we're going to try next weekend about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to 'Let it Go' about 'Get out Joe,' because she thinks he's going to run against her," Newport said. "We're going to give it a try. That's one of those songs that, if you have a kid, you know it. I'm hoping that the general population knows it, too."
Most of the material is pulled from national headlines, so there's not necessarily a lot of customized regional humor for local audiences -- unless the area the Steps are performing in happens to have notable national figures worthy of satire.
"Now, of course, Alaska has provided us with some good material," Newport said. "It was funny, the last time we came to Alaska, they said, 'we're sick of Sarah Palin; don't do any Sarah Palin jokes' and we're like, 'okay.'"
By Toben Shelby
Daily News correspondent