by Michael Bowen
There's this often-repeated joke about how the Capitol Steps got their start. Asked by their boss, an Illinois senator, to put together a Christmas show, they would have drawn their actors from Congress but "couldn't locate three wise men and a virgin."
I ask co-founder Elaina Newport what else she remembers about 1981. "Well," she recalls, "Strom Thurmond was only 78 years old. That was back before his first wife. It was in the early years of Reagan. We had the [Attorney General Edwin] Meese-keteers."
Since their very first spoof of Reagan's military buildup, done to a My Fair Lady tune ("Immense Expense is Mainly in Defense"), what else hath Newport wrought? Her work on the Steps' 23 CDs includes parodies of songs by Bob Dylan ("Like a Suburban Drone"); George Gershwin, filtered through the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal ("Our Love is Here to Stain"); The Phantom of the Opera ("The Loonies of the Right"); and, with reference to the vacillations of Bill Clinton, Elvis ("Return to Center, Viewpoint Unknown").
But are the Steps actually split between Republicans and Democrats? Are they really equal opportunity offenders? "You know, you always are going to get more material out of whichever party is in power," Newport replies. "Right now, we're doing a lot more Bush and Cheney jokes than about any of the Democrats. I mean, come on, Tom Daschle -- what's funny about him? But if Bill Clinton does a talk show or something, we'll bring him right back in, because we try to keep it balanced, sling shots at both sides and spread it around."
Newport emphasizes that the Steps have to test the political winds: "You want to see what people are focusing on. I mean, there are big stories that people really don't pay much attention to, and then there are small stories that they latch onto. For example, you can write songs all you want about India and Pakistan and the threat of a nuclear war over there, and nobody will laugh, nobody will pay any attention to it. But, boy, if you can write a spoof about Winona Ryder getting caught for shoplifting -- those are the kind of little stories that people know all about.
"You gotta realize, we have songs about big things like war and the Middle East -- and they're met with, like, nothing." As an example, she recalls the Bay Area road rage incident in which a man, angry over a traffic jam, reached into a woman's car and threw her purebred dog onto the freeway. "So I wrote this song," says Newport, "and it went, 'What Schmuck Threw That Doggie Out the Window?' Everybody in the cast thought this was hilarious and that we ought to do it."
Yet Newport is reduced to explaining her joke: "Let me stress that this was an anti-dog-throwing song -- it was critical of what this guy had done. Well, people just did not want to hear about dogs being hurt in any way. Now, what I take from that is that you can do songs about the horrors of war, but you can't do songs about hurting puppies."
In 21 years, I wonder, which political figures have
been the most fun to lampoon? She replies
quickly: "Quayle and Clinton for sure. But my all-time personal favorite? I'd have to say Ross Perot. Because I had so much fun asking myself, 'Now, how would he say that?' For example, a normal politician says something colorless like, 'The deficit is dangerous.' But Perot, he's gonna say something like [goes into a Texas twang] 'Well, you see, the deficit is like a rattlesnake. And it's gone down into your pants, and you've gotta take a gun to it, but you've gotta be careful not to shoot nothin' that's valuable.' "
The Steps take pride in being up to the minute. So what's new? "We just wrote a song that may well make its debut in Spokane," Newport reports. "It has Saddam Hussein singing about his chemical and biological weapons to a tune from My Fair Lady: 'I've Grown a Culture in This Place.'"
Another recent tune has President Bush trying to divert attention from the economy by talking about Saddam all the time. "So we set some words to that oldies song, 'Walk like a man': 'Talk 'bout Saddam as much as you can.' "
Newport complains that it had gotten no reaction the week before, even in the inside-the-Beltway club where the Steps try out their routines. I venture that maybe it fell flat because people are busy trying to place the song.
"Oh, that's the Frankie Valli tune," she replies. "It's an oldie. But hey, maybe you're right."
I saw my opening. Hire me, Elaina. Please hire me.
"Well, okay, when we come out to Spokane, maybe we can dress you up as Janet Reno" -- I am nearly as tall as Reno -- "and we'll get out the bikini wax, and..."
I moved on to other matters. Quickly.
I'd read that the Steps have played in every state except Wyoming. "What do you have against Wyoming?" I slyly ask.
Newport doesn't hesitate: "Dick Cheney."
They were even asked to sing for the O. J. Simpson jury, and Newport remembers feeling nervous: "We were performing for a group that was sequestered and cut off from mainstream society -- but then again, we perform for Congress."