Political song-and-dance

By Allan I. Ross

Capitol Steps mocks politics tonight at the Wharton Center

Thursday, Oct. 4 —Before there was a “Daily Show” or a “Colbert Report” (or a Glenn Beck, for that matter), Capitol Steps was there to show us how ridiculous the political machine was. Part dueling piano sing-a-long, part sketch comedy troupe, the musical satire crew has been skewering politics for 30 years.

Tonight it brings its shtick to the Wharton Center for its annual song-and-dance bravado.

Capitol Steps founding member Elaina Newport, 55, went from working behind the political curtain (she was a legislative assistant for former Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy in the early ‘80s) to waiting for curtain call. She spoke to City Pulse in an interview from her Virginia office about her favorite political punch lines and what it’s like spinning scandals into pop song parodies.

What made you switch from politics to show business?
I was a piano major at the University of Maryland. If you’re not going into (performing), though, what good is that? But when we were starting out, someone asked who could do musical arrangements and I raised my hand. (Capitol Steps) was definitely a career I never anticipated — it just all came together. You don’t ask a third grader what they want to be when they grow and they say political satirist.

Who were some of your favorite parody subjects?
(Michelle) Bachman and (Herman) Cain were just incredible. I hated to see each one of them drop out. Cain was too perfect. He had his “999 Plan,” which we parodied with the song “Love Potion # 999.” I mean, sexual harassment and pizza — how great is that? And Bill Clinton represented the Golden Age of satire. He gave us years of material. It was hard to be funnier. I mean, she kept the dress? Her bra was wired? No matter how funny we tried to be, he always one-upped us.

Is the show staged or do you mix in any improv?
It’s all scripted, unless someone forgets a line. Because of the timeliness of the subject matter, a performer might not get a script until 2 in the afternoon and that’s not a lot of rehearsal time. So, yeah, there are occasionally times when they have turn to the audience with a “Hey, give me a break, I just got this.”

How are you characterizing the candidates?
It’s easier to get into (President Obama’s) issues than his personality. For a time, I thought he picked Biden just to help us out, kind of like a, “Here comedians, take this.” But now that we’ve gotten to know him, we’ve had more fun. We sing about him personally capturing and killing Osama bin Laden and we have him sing a song, “If I Taxed the Rich Man.”
Romney gets funnier and funnier — who is his speechwriter, Mel Gibson? He does a rap in our show, because rappers don’t apologize for being rich. We have him sing (“Baby Got Back” parody) “I Like Big Bucks and I Cannot Lie.”

Political satire has changed so much in the last 30 years. How does Capitol Steps still exist in a world where we have Jon Stewart?
A lot of kids get their news coverage from “The Daily Show,” and that’s not a bad thing. It’s very topical, and it tells them what politicians are saying this week versus what they said last week. It takes issues that aren’t things people normally know about — like the “Fast and Furious” program — and talk about it in a conversational way for 10 minutes. It actually helps our show, so that by the time the audience comes to us, they have a good base knowledge.

Capitol Steps has been around for 30 years — how much longer can it go?
I guess as long as politicians keep screwing up. If they all got quietly competent, we’d have to close. But I don’t think there’s any danger of that.