Archive » April 20, 2006
By Steven Libowitz
THE NATIONAL LAMPOONERS
If Congress had been as prolific and efficient over the last quarter-century as The Capitol Steps, the political musical parody troupe that operates as their friendly thorns-in-the-sides, it’s a safe bet that the country would have solved a whole bunch more of its problems. Consider this: while senators and subcommittee personnel argue over everything but the shape of the table, Capitol Steps has released 25 albums in 25 years while growing from a cast of three to more than 25 performers who tour the country ceaselessly with never-ending repertory performances.
You can chalk up a good chunk of that success to founding partner Elaina Newport, who along with two colleagues on Senator Charles Percy’s staff in 1981 threw together a few skits and song parodies carved out of the day’s headlines for a one-off Christmas party. They were an instant success, and it wasn’t too long before they quit their day jobs to become professional entertainers.
But enough of the researcher remains in Newport for her to beseech her interviewers – or anyone else for that matter – for song suggestions or a little help with a lyric.
“I’ve got several ideas I’m working on this week,” she says over the phone from Steps’s Northern Virginia office. “Let me run them by you.
“We do just fine on the forthcoming indictment of, um, indicted former public servants, to be sung to the tune of Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin & John.’ I’ve got Abramoff and Tom (DeLay),” she says. “But who’s the third to be indicted?”
“What’s wrong with Scooter (Libby)?” I suggest.
“Well, we’ve already got ‘I’m So Indicted,’ (Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”) about him,” she says. “But that would work.”
The latest idea: “Barry with the Syringe on Top” (“Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from “Oklahoma”).
Um, wasn’t Mr. Bonds reported to have injected steroids into his bottom? “Yeah, that’s true,” she says. “Sometimes, you get these great ideas, but you just can’t write the song.”
Hmmm. Hard to imagine that happens to Newport very often, since there have been more than 400 Cap Steps songs over the years, most of which bear her signature. As in the forthcoming “Juan” (“One” from “A Chorus Line”) – a song about the immigration controversy featuring a “new performer from over the border.” Or an ode to the retiring head of the Federal Reserve Bank, “Mr. Greenspan” (“Mr. Sandman”).
It seems like a pretty fun job.
Q. Can we talk about how Cap Steps has thrived for so long. A quarter of a century – did you ever expect that?
A. Oh, God no. We thought we’d be asked to quit the same day we started. So we still have to thank Senator Percy for not shutting us down. It’s truly been amazing.
When you think about it, not that many parodists survive for so long: Allan Sherman burned out, Weird Al has all but faded away.
They got into the celebrity, which isn’t a problem for us. We don’t have any stalkers. But it is hard to sustain. It’s helped that we’re a group instead of one person. I don’t know how Mark Russell has been doing it for all these years. I consider the people I tour with to be family, albeit a dysfunctional one, perhaps. But every body tosses in ideas, and it’s very energizing. We can lean on each other when we need to. It is a weird business. Your dog could have died that day and yet you still have to go out and try to be funny. So it helps to have friends around you the whole time.
You have also made some adjustments: performers no longer have to be ex-congressional staffers, for example.
True. For the first fifteen years we were very strict on the matter. You had to have worked on Capitol Hill or we wouldn’t hire you. But we relaxed that eventually because it was too hard to find people. So now it’s about half and half between those of us who are very immersed in politics and those who know so little that you sometimes feel like you’re teaching them a foreign language. “It’s You’ve-shenk-O. Just learn the syllables phonetically!”
There’s always been some rancor in politics, but it seems like things have never been as divisive and polarized as right now. Are folks still willing to laugh at the situation or are they too angry?
We’ve always tried to be as bipartisan as possible, but it’s very difficult right now. The party in power is always going to be funnier. With the last few years with the Republicans controlling everything, we have to go out of our way to look for funny Democrats. So we came up with a new song, “Springtime for Liberals” (to the tune of “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers”) because it’s a great opportunity for Democrats but they will probably blow it. So that sort of goes both ways.
I’m an extreme moderate, so I get annoyed when either side goes too far. But things have gotten so strident. Hopefully both sides can still laugh.
When it’s particularly nasty, that means you need to laugh more than ever. When the world is really truly going crazy then the only thing you can do sometimes is laugh. What else are you going to do?
Everything changes so quickly. I mean, by the time you write a song let alone put out an album, it’s usually already old news. How do you keep up?
That’s one of the problems. I was all excited about the Dubai Ports deal – because we had a great song “Dubai Dubai Doo” (“Strangers in the Night”) and then they announced they were dropping it, which really annoyed me because we thought it would last for a long time. The only consolation is I think the Democrats are going to try to make hay for a while on that issue so it will be around.
It is a lot of work to stay current, but sometimes it works the other way too. With “Mine Every Mountain” (“Climb Every Mountain” from “Sound of Music”) we got tons of mileage. It was one of our first songs ever, for James Watt, then we brought it back when Gale Norton was nominated. Now we‘re using it again because she just resigned, having done everything she needed to do – you can insert your own punchline here. Also, last spring we did a song about the Tom DeLay scandal. Then he got indicted and the story stuck around forever, so we got a year out of the song when we never expected more than a few weeks. Now that he’s announced he’s not running, it might fade. But he does have a couple of indictments he’s got to face, so we’re hoping for a juicy trial, um, from a comedy standpoint, of course.
There is that odd quirk where you have to root for long-lasting and deep-seated scandals to sustain the songs.
I would actually appreciate fewer, huge global tragedies and world war problems in favor of a good sordid sex scandal, which are generally a whole lot funnier. I mean, how on earth do you make “Katrina” funny. You can’t. But you can go after Michael Brown and all the other buffoons who are putting their foot in their mouth.
I know you always try to do something on Governor Schwarzenegger when you’re here, but do you normally tailor the show to local audiences?
No, it’s a national show. In California we make a special effort to get Arnold in because he’s such a big name – we did him a lot everywhere during the recall election because he was a household name.
So is there anything special about Santa Barbara after playing here for a decade?
Oh, man, it’s our favorite theatre (Lobero) in the world and one of the best audiences.
C’mon, I bet you say that to everybody.
Yeah, but don’t tell the others. Your paper’s still not on the Internet, right?
(editor’s note: actually, we are, finally, on the Internet)
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