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Troupe Took Steps Toward Becoming Famous

Washington-based comedy group, which was founded by congressional staffers, performs hundreds of shows each year around the country.

October 27, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Al Gore and George W. Bush aren't the only ones racking up a lot of travel miles this election year.

Consider the Capitol Steps, the Washington, D.C.-based musical political satire troupe founded nearly 20 years ago by a group of congressional staffers.

Not only are members continuing their weekly Saturday night shows in the 600-seat amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and International Trade Center--it's only two blocks from the White House, "the source of most of our material," as members are prone to joke--but they've got five traveling units plying the country.

By year's end, they'll have done about 700 shows--110 of them in October, including one at UC Irvine Thursday night. They'll be performing at the Poway Center for the Arts in San Diego tonight.

"Join the Capitol Steps, see the world," joked Elaina Newport, one of the group's co-founders, who was tracked down at a Best Western in Madison, Wis., where she and four other cast members--plus a pianist--would be performing that night at the Madison Civic Center.

"This is a college town, where you've got kind of an educated population that reads the news," she said. "They're really fun shows for us."

Although each Capitol Steps unit consists of five performers, there are far more than five characters in the show, Newport said, citing one example: "The guy who plays George W. Bush comes back five songs later as Dick Cheney, with stuffing in his stomach and a bald [cap] on his head."

Newport said the troupe packs about 20 characters and 30 song parodies into its 90-minute show. But although they're known for political satire, the Capitol Steps' material goes beyond politics.

"It sort of depends on how you define politics," she said. "For example, we have a song about high gas prices called 'What Kind of Fuel Am I?' That's semi-political; the candidates are talking about it."

They also have a lot of "international songs," she said, "but the show is almost half election politics right now." And Bush and Gore have provided ample inspiration.

"They've been great, and our expectations were very low, just coming off Bill Clinton, who raised the bar for what constitutes a scandal," she said. "I was thinking the other day how ticked off Gary Hart must be. If you look back and think what he got kicked out of politics for and what Bill Clinton survived."

As for George W. Bush, Newport said, "he gives you a chance really to resurrect all the Dan Quayle material. But Bush has so much potential beyond the fumbling of names of world leaders; he's got a slightly scandalous past. When Bill Clinton first came in, he only had a little bit of scandal that anybody knew about, roughly the equivalent of the party boy image Bush has, and we're hoping it's the tip of the iceberg."

And Al Gore?

"For years, there were the 'stiff' jokes," Newport said. "People still perceive him that way, but it's gotten funnier as the campaign goes on--his making up stories and exaggerating the truth. We've got a whole song about Al Gore as a kid inventing the yo-yo and the spelling bee."

The Capitol Steps began in 1981 when Newport and six other staffers for U.S. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) provided the entertainment for an office Christmas party in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room. They did a half-dozen song parodies.

"It was the first year of Reagan," Newport recalled. "He had brought in James Watt as secretary of the interior, so we had a song called 'Mine Every Mountain.' And we had the Meeseketeers for [Atty. Gen.] Ed Meese. It was a fun time."

Newport said she and her fellow congressional staffers didn't do any public shows the first several years; they did only private parties.

"We were all thinking we had serious political careers ahead of us and this was risking them," she recalled. "We had this nightmare that in 10 years we'd be nominated for some important position and the first question at our confirmation hearing would be, 'Did you make fun of the president back in 1981?' "

They expected somebody to tell them, "You shouldn't be doing this; you work in politics." But that never happened, she said. "One of the biggest surprises over the years is people not only didn't ask us to stop, they sort of liked being made fun of."

Although Capitol Steps members in the early years had to work on the Hill before being allowed to join, the group relaxed its policy in 1996 when, Newport said, "we got so busy we would have run out of people. I personally worked on the Hill for seven years, from 1981 to 1988, but we started traveling in the late '80s and they started noticing I wasn't showing up a lot [at work]."

Now, she said, "everybody does this full time."

The Capitol Steps have recorded 20 albums--their latest is "It's Not Over 'Til the First Lady Sings." And although Newport and fellow co-founder Bill Strauss write "a good chunk" of the material, the song parodies are always written in a group and everyone contributes ideas--such as having "President Clinton" sing a takeoff on Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca": "Livin' Libido Loca."

"Al Gore's song is called 'Put 10 Grand in the Hand of the Man From Tennessee,' " said Newport, adding that their song for George W. Bush is set to Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle": "I want to be like you, Dad / I want to be just like you. . . . ' "

They also do a skit in which Bush is a contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Said Newport: "The questions are tough, like 'The president of France is the leader of what country?' "

Newport said the show has a lot of visuals.

"We have an entire Al Gore dance number that must be seen."

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