By Daniel Kurtzman
shoes. Anthrax. Terror alerts. For many Americans, such things have become a
source of considerable anxiety throughout the past year.
But for the Capitol Steps, it is the stuff of irresistible comedy.
For 20 years, the Washington, D.C.-based political satire troupe has been
lampooning our nation's leaders and current events through its irreverent brand
of musical parody. It is an art that, since Sept. 11, has become a much more
delicate undertaking. But even in the face of the rather unsettling news of the
day, the Capitol Steps have managed to find new targets for their trenchant wit,
providing much-needed comic relief in the process.
Combining keenly observant political and social satire with cabaret-style
theatrics, the troupe has regaled audiences with a look at the lighter side of
the war on terrorism and homeland security, while poking fun at everything from
Enron's cooked books to Gary Condit's evasive conduct.
Many of the troupe's best new parodies are collected on their 22nd album,
"When Bush Comes to
Shove," which features highlights from their live
performances. In the Steps' tradition of writing new lyrics to well-known tunes,
they perform such inventive songs as "Shoe
Bomb," a parody of the '60s
do-wop classic "Sh-Boom"; "Osama Come Out Tomorrow," sung to
the tune of "Tomorrow" from "Annie"; and "Pack the
Knife," a hilarious spoof of airport security procedures set to the music
of "Mack the Knife."
Full of timely political references and bipartisan jabs, the album provides a
steady stream of laughs and some of the most incisive, wildly entertaining
satire aimed at the current political climate. Masters of the art of political
parody, the Capitol Steps are to musical comedy what the satirical newspaper
"The Onion" is to the printed word and what "The
is to late-night television.
The Steps are currently performing a series of shows around the country highlighted by a new off-Broadway production
that include many of the great
spoofs on the album, as well as an ever-changing set of comic sketches and
up-to-the-minute parodies. Keeping a frenetic schedule that includes more than
500 public and corporate shows a year, the 25-member cast divides into groups of
five performers and one piano player who split time between the New York show,
weekly performances in Washington, D.C., and one-night stands in cities such as
Ann Arbor, Mich., Hartford, Ct, and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. For the past 10 years,
they've also produced quarterly specials for National Public
Comprised mainly of current and former congressional staffers, the troupe got
its start by accident in 1981 at a Christmas party for the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee when three members of then-Sen. Charles Percy's staff were
asked to provide entertainment. "We thought, 'We'll just do this for this
one Christmas party and probably get fired,'" recalls Elaina Newport, the
group's co-founder and producer. "But what happened was weird nobody
asked us to stop. Like most things on Capitol Hill, it just got out of
Emulating a style of musical parody made famous by Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman,
and Mark Russell, the troupe quickly became a cult hit inside the Beltway,
bringing skillful vocalizations, dead-on impersonations, and expert comedic
timing to their performances. Between the Iran-Contra scandal, Dan Quayle's
gaffes, and Clinton's sexcapades, they've had plenty of material to work with
over the years. But this year posed unique challenges. After Sept. 11, they had
to retool much of their show, since many of their parodies suddenly not only
became inappropriate, but irrelevant.
"There were some things that immediately on the 12th of September were no
longer tasteful, like 'The Angina Monologues' with Dick Cheney. When he was
hiding in a bunker, it became less funny that he had a heart condition,"
Fortunately new targets emerged, and the Steps began taking the requisite
punches at Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, while poking fun at American
reactions to the war on terrorism. They soon incorporated Tom Ridge and his
terror alerts into a series of comedy sketches in which he frightens small
children with bedtime stories. Fears over anthrax provided inspiration for a
stirring number performed to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the
Republic," which features such lyrics as: "Glory glory paranoia /
Ain't it starting to annoy ya / Even junk mail could destroy ya / Where has the
Congress gone?" And even President Bush's surge in popularity couldn't save
him from getting skewered by his own wife in "Don't Go Faking You're
Smart" ("Don't Go Breaking My Heart").
About a third of the album is devoted to nonpolitical topical humor, and that
material provides some of the most surprising laughs, perhaps because it comes
at you from under the radar. By far the most inventive parody has to be "Mooooooo,"
an ode to mad cow disease that mimics Carlos Santana's hit song
"Smooth" from his Grammy Award winning album "Supernatural."
Crooned by a diseased cow, the song contains the lyrics: "All over Europe
north and south / Me and all my friends have got the foot and mouth / You've got
to find a cow that's never been around / Find a young cow, make it veal / Or
else forget about beef."
The album, while highly inventive, doesn't provide the same sidesplitting laughs
as some of the Steps' satire from the Clinton years. Songs like "Ol' Man
Zipper" and "Our Love Is Here to Stain" from their earlier albums
"Unzippin' My Doodah" and "First Lady And The Tramp" are
hard to top. Of course, that was the golden age of political comedy, and Clinton
essentially satirized himself.
The current state of political affairs poses a much greater comic challenge,
which is why "When Bush Comes to Shove" ultimately has to be
considered one of the troupe's most impressive achievements.
"I feel happy about it, not because it's more hilarious, but because it was
such a tough year to do this," Newport said. "We handled it in a way
that our audiences have appreciated."
The Capitol Steps are currently performing through Aug. 31 at the John Houseman
Theater in Manhattan and every weekend at the Ronald Reagan Building in
Washington, D.C. For complete information
about upcoming performances, visit the Steps' Web site: www.capsteps.com.
Steps on the Web
Political Humor CD's
Gifts & Souvenirs
The Web's Best Political Satire and