In his decade with the Steps, Rowles has never starred as a woman, though he was a pizza slice for the song “Love Cain” about Herman Cain (sung to the tune of the O’Jays’ “Love Train”), “and that was kind of feminine,” Newport says.
“But that wasn’t intentional,” Rowles quips.
Now celebrating their 30th year, the Capitol Steps are all about timing — political timing, comedic timing, and the timing it takes to write satire that’s right on top of the latest news, scandals, pols and polls. In addition to doing D.C. shows every Friday and Saturday night, the troupe has performed in all 50 states and a half-dozen countries. It had a five-summer off-Broadway run in the late 1990s and returns to New York for a show each spring.
The show is always full of sight gags — glasses, cheap wigs, fake dynamite. There’s a shark eating a guy, and an “Octomom” onstage in a bathrobe with seven babies who squats and drops her eighth. To follow the antics and skits of the Capitol Steps, it helps to be smart. Not really, really smart, but Washington smart — i.e., smart enough to recognize when somebody is ripe for attack and ridicule.
In December 1981, about a half-dozen Republican staffers, including Newport, decided to spice up the Christmas party of Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.). Newport played piano; her boss, Bill Strauss, wrote song parodies. A caricatured James Watt, the controversial interior secretary at the time, sang “Mine Every Mountain” (to the tune of “Climb Every Mountain”). There was a song about “The Meeseketeers (“The Mickey Mouse Club”) and Attorney General Edwin Meese, and one that poked fun at President Ronald Reagan, who was famously not known for keeping long hours. It was called “Working 9 to 10.”
“We just thought, how are we going to keep this party from being boring?” Newport says. Making light fun of the bosses seemed just the thing. That party turned into another and another. “We thought, if we add some Democrats, some House people, spread the risk around and make fun of everybody, maybe we’ll get away with this.”
The group took its name from the scandal involving Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his wife, Rita, who posed for Playboy and bragged that she and John had had sex on the Capitol steps. (She recanted that story about sex on the steps earlier this year).
In 1984, the Steps started getting paid gigs. In 1988, Newport, then a legislative assistant to Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), joined the troupe full time. It was “almost like running off, joining the circus,” she says.