When Yuri Andropov died, Bill Strauss was terrified -- though not over the fate of the world.
"All I could think of was, 'Oh no! There goes the Grenada song.' " Strauss was rooting for Konstantin Chernenko to ascend to Soviet leadership. "Chernenko could have been a madman, but it rhymed."
Strauss cares about rhymes because he is the leader and cofounder of the Capitol Steps, one of the liveliest singing troupes ever to hit Washington. By day, its nine members hold real jobs on and around the Hill. By night they satirize their bosses, the issues and anything else they come in contact with. The troupe, as former member Bob Pfeiffer puts it, was "born out of a staff Christmas party gone wild."
That was four years, 150 songs and 250 performances ago. Once again this season they are taking the treacle out of Christmas caroling, offering such twists as "Hark When Gerald Ford Was King" and "Arreste Nudilis" (Arrest New Dealers), the latter composed of such mock Latinisms as "No bene fitum" (no benefit 'em), and more:
Ex septum trulinidium [except the truly needy, etc.],
De crisium de spendum,
De crisium de taxum,
In crisium de fensum,
Since the essence of political satire is topicality, Strauss and the cast have a rather schizophrenic time of it -- going through their daily routines while listening to the news, scanning the papers or searching for hidden yuks in political campaigns or the legislative process. Lyrics are often changed, axed or added minutes before show time.
Strauss was sweating out Andropov's death, for example, because of his lines to "Grenada" -- from George and Ira Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Strauss, playing President Reagan, sings a duet with a mad-bomber-style general:
You say 'GrenAY-da,' I say 'GrenAH-da'
He said 'invade-a,' I used an armada
GrenAY-a, GrenAH-da . . .
We blew the whole place up.
And so forth through choruses about Nicaragua and Havana, ending with, "You say 'ANDropov,' I say 'AnDROPov' / I'd like to drop off somes bomb that would pop off." After Andropov, the song was saved for several more months with "You say 'CherNANko' / I say 'CherNINko' / I'd like to tango with that commie pinko."
But when Chernenko went, so went the song. Says Strauss, "Gorbachev just didn't work."
By then, the Capitol Steps had learned that perishability is the norm. Says Elaina Newport, who started the group with Strauss, "We groaned when they got rid of James Watt and the Clinch River bill."
Their first and instant success was "Old Clinch River" to the tune of "Old Man River"; Watt seemed made to order for satire. There was something depressing about bidding farewell to the guy who inspired "The Drills Are Alive."
Mine every mountain
Fill every stream.
But, says Newport, "there is always something or someone new." Adds Strauss: "It's like writing a political column, only more fun."
You can be sure that Mikhail Gorbachev did not sit around unused for long. A current hit is "Gor-by Gorbachev" to Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown."
On the south side of the Kremlin,
Down along by Lenin's tomb
There's a guy who's young, he's upwardly mobile,
And so precisely groomed.
He got a custom razor haircut,
And a Izod sweater too,
He's a real photo catcher, when he met Maggie Thatcher
She loved his Gucci shoe.
The troupe -- mostly Republicans with a few Democrats and independents -- strives for balance. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill and Sen. Edward Kennedy get zapped as much as Reagan and Vice President Bush. Unlike their idol of old, Tom Lehrer, their songs contain more spoof than bite, with but a few below-the-belt lines, such as a Ted Kennedy "Camelot" song that asks, "Swam a lot?" Last week, when Kennedy announced he would not seek the presidency in 1988, alterations in the song were made between two Christmas party performances.
The laughs, though, depend on more than wordplay and satire. A keen musical ability is part of the act, and so are sight gags. For example, Winthrop Cashdollar, who plays Vice President Bush, always comes on waving a cheerleader's pompons.
When the pun is easily recognizable, the chuckles sometimes start before the jokes, such as Gorbachev's lament about his wife getting so much publicity at Geneva. "You Light Up My Life" was changed to "You Write Up My Wife." Another hit, to the tune of "The Rain in Spain," goes, "Immense Expense Is Mainly in Defense." Puff the Magic Dragon will never be the same after "Dutch the Magic Reagan."
Some oldies remain popular, such as the one set to Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World." Says Strauss, "It was our Bitburg song, but it lasted." Audiences start laughing at the first words from Strauss, playing Reagan:
Don't know much about history,
Don't know much about Germany
Don't know much about World War II
Don't know much about who fought who
But I know it followed World War I
If we only fought in wars we won
What a wonderful world this would be.
The Capitol Steps tradition began when Strauss, then 34, threw together some lines for a Christmas party. Strauss, a serious thinker and full-time worrier about budget deficits, had never performed in high school or at Harvard -- where he attended both undergraduate and law school. Apart from playing a shepherd in a third-grade Christmas party, he was your basic shower singer.
But he was also a poet of sorts, quick to think up rhymes -- programs that are "axable" rhyme with "taxable." Strauss' wife Janie has long gotten used to the 2 a.m. audition, when he will wake her to try out a new line. She and Newport are the final arbiters on what is funny. Strauss winces at the put-downs he gets for his groaners and says, "Sometimes we will hold up a song for months or simply not do it if we don't think it ends right."
Before former Illinois senator Charles Percy was defeated, Strauss was majority staff chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs' Subcommittee on Energy, Nuclear Proliferation and Government Processes. "The name barely fit on a letterhead," says Strauss. Close proximity to the subject of nuclear proliferation produced a song that convulsed the Soviet press when the Capitol Steps performed it for them -- "We belong to a mutual annihilation society."
And from "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from "Evita" came:
Don't build the bomb Argentina
If you build it, you might explode it
If you show ill will
You know Brazil will
But you are waiting
Newport, a music major and summa cum laude graduate of the University of Maryland, was hired by Strauss before he knew she was an expert pianist. Now prospective members of the troupe have to audition. Newport was working on the Senate Committee on Government Processes and testified on collections of student loans. Her boss, Percy, chaired the hearing and had to suppress a laugh as Newport testified; he knew about her song, "To Borrow," to the tune of "Tomorrow" from "Annie."
Newport, who is now a legislative aide on economic issues for Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), came up with the name, the Capitol Steps, in memory of Rita Jenrette's celebrated tryst there with her former husband, ex-congressman John Jenrette. The runner-up name was Washington Maul.
Strauss is manically democratic -- small 'd' -- about seeing that the cast gets credit for ideas, from lyrics to props. The group, which also includes Jim Aidala Karen Doyne, David Gencarelli, Mary Joyce, Kevin Kirkpatrick and Richard Paul, performs for friends and trade associations, and every other Saturday is at the Pennsylvania Avenue Bread Oven.
"You know, Tom Lehrer stopped writing songs because he thought in an age of nuclear war and racial injustice and problems with the poor that things weren't funny," says Strauss. "We're always going to have problems and I think we need to keep finding the humor, the ironies."
There are no plans to become full-time professionals. Says Newport, "It's important to hold onto the fact that an important thing of what we are is where we work."
Strauss, now with the National Taxpayers Union, sees as his mission "to call attention to what I think is the problem of the decade, the budget deficits. The big test is to make it interesting and compelling." Strauss is so concerned, in fact, that the deficit keeps popping up in his after-hours work. Sometimes the group stops him with "oh no, not another deficit song."
But Strauss was vindicated when a spoof on Gramm-Rudman became a hit. It is one of the groups' few nonsinging skits, featuring a takeoff of the Sy and Marcy Syms clothing store commercials and played with perfect nasal New York accents by Aidala and Newport:
"We seem to be the only ones in town who understand Gramm-Rudman's budget cutting plan -- because it's just like our price-slashing system here at Syms. Let's say we start with a deficit of 200 billion dollars. We'll immediately mark it down 25 percent to 150 billion! And if after one year the deficit is still with us, we'll reduce it another 25 percent to 100 billion dollars! After two years, if it's still there, we'll chop it again to 50 billion dollars."
Signs in the shape of price tags are held up as the skit continues:
"After three years the deficit becomes final -- at nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents.
"Now, don't ask us what we're gonna cut. We don't know. But remember -- in politics, the most simple-minded plan gets the most customers."