For more than 35 years now, the musical satire group known as The Capitol Steps has been taking shots at politicians, pundits and anyone else in Washington who makes a halfway decent target.
The group is famous, in part, for its decidedly old-school approach to satire, featuring Vaudeville-style parody songs and broad sketch-comedy schtick. Their motto: We put the “mock” in democracy.
No one has ever mistaken the Steps’ brand of humor for edgy political satire. They’re like Washington’s resident house band – a little square, maybe, a little long in the tooth. But professional and reliable – the kind of show you can take grandma to. Or the kids.
“It’s a PG show, maybe PG-13,” said Elaina Newport, founding cast member of The Capitol Steps, performing Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. “It depends on what’s in the headlines. Sometimes these politicians do things that change the rating.”
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Newport said the touring company – five performers and a piano – typically includes about 30 songs and sketches in an evening’s performance, culled from a rotating batch of material.
“You’ll see Donald Trump sing a rock song; you’ll see Bernie Sanders sing a show tune,” she said. “You’ll see Vladimir Putin dancing shirtless. You won’t see that anywhere else. Well, you might, actually, with him.”
Live from Capitol Hill
Some history: The Steps were officially founded in 1981 by a small group of former U.S. Senate staffers who were tasked with putting together some last-minute entertainment for an office Christmas party.
The performance was a hit, and the troupe began performing regularly in D.C. Things got out of hand, and soon the former D.C. staffers had show-business careers. Since that first office party, The Capitol Steps have recorded more than 30 albums, performed around the world, and logged dozens of radio and television specials.
Newport said the current company, about 30 performers in all, is a mix of part-time and full-time members who cover out-of-town dates and the Steps’ weekly performances in D.C. About half of the group have Capitol Hill experience, with the other coming from Washington’s theater and comedy scene.
“When people come in to audition, they often have a musical theater background and have songs prepared, but then we ask them – OK, sing that song as Kim Jong Un,” Newport said. “Then they realize that, in this group, they have to be able to do that.”
Newport and fellow cast member Mark Eaton handle much of the writing duties these days, but other performers pitch in as well.
“We rotate in about a song per week, and therefore retire about a song per week,” Newport said. “We have certain songs that are designed to be adaptable. For example we have a song on Trump tweeting all the time, and we can incorporate his tweets of the week into that song pretty easily. We’re always updating things.”
Kinder, gentler shows
Speaking of the current administration, Newport said that the last election caused a bit of anxiety among the Steps. Washington’s tumultuous political climate had become so severe that it threatened to overwhelm the Steps’ brand of gentle irreverence
“One of things we were concerned about, right after the election, is that people would think – this isn’t funny anymore; this isn’t a laughing matter,” she said. “Things had gotten so contentious.”
While Newport said the atmosphere in D.C. was tense, the first few shows after the election were reassuring.
“We were relieved when, after the election, one of the most frequent comments we got was, ‘Oh, man, I do need to laugh. I’m glad I came.’ We thought, ‘OK, well, then we’ve done our job.’ ”
The Capitol Steps have become a D.C. institution and, until former President Barack Obama, had performed for every sitting president since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Newport said the Steps were bummed that they never got to perform for Obama, but they still hold out hope that they’ll get an invitation from the new president.
“We’d be glad to do it,” Newport said. “I think he’d enjoy the show bigly.”
What: The Capitol Steps
When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 4
Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: carolinatheatre.org or 919-560-3030