For its newest song, “Three Little Wives of Newt” (set to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids From School”), the Capitol Steps were short a wife Friday night. But it wasn’t a problem. Jack Rowles, who’s kinda pretty anyway, gamely stepped in to play the Republican presidential candidate’s current wife, Callista Gingrich.
Elaina Newport, a founder of the political satire troupe, thought it was time for the group to add more Newt material to its lineup, and the wives — Ann Margaret Schmitt, Nancy Dolliver and Rowles — were learning the song on the fly in the amphitheater at the Reagan Building an hour before showtime. All part of the rush, the actors say.
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.
Newport is the only original office party troupe member remaining. Strauss died in 2007 and Jim Aidala performed off and on for 10 years before taking a series of political jobs in the Clinton administration. He later moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., and remains on the Steps’ board.
The Steps brag that they are equal opportunity satirists and have a song for every scandal. They’ve done “Livin’ Libido Loco” about President Bill Clinton and “Don’t Go Faking You’re Smart,” a duet with a Laura Bush singing to her husband. His response: “I couldn’t if I tried.”
Mike Tilford, who studied opera and did local dinner theater before joining the troupe nearly 20 years ago, is a dead ringer for Michael Dukakis. Or Chris Dodd. Or Dick Cheney. Or a number of other white male politicians. He played Bill Clinton for years. “I’m Southern and kinda sleazy, so they hired me,” he says.
Staffers for President George H.W. Bush once ordered the Steps not to make fun of the president in a White House performance, but Bush would not have it. “I want to see your songs about me!” Newport recalls his saying, so in went the riff on his mix-up about Pearl Harbor Day, “Try to remember that date in September . . . ,” with Bush joining in onstage.
The politicians never, ever get offended by the jokes, each and every Step insists. It’s only when they’re not included that they get mad.
“You gotta remember the egos on these guys,” says Mark Eaton, who along with Newport writes much of the material. “Say there’s three senators in the crowd. The third one, who didn’t get mentioned, is the one who gets mad.” The troupe doesn’t aim to burn anyone anyway, Eaton says, “just to singe” a little bit. To poke fun at the news, and Washington, and the people we elect to represent us — the ones who’ve been handing the Capitol Steps their best material for three decades, with no signs of stopping.
Maryann Sudbury, in from Ponca City, Okla., and her parents, Earl and Tommie West of Silver Spring, try to attend a Steps performance once a year. At home, Sudbury catches the troupe’s specials on NPR. “They seem to hit the nail on the head,” she says.
“They expose the underlayer” of Washington, Earl says, “and it’s nice to see pomposity deflated.”
A recent show began by noting the opposite of “pro-gress” is “Con-gress.” It featured “Loonies of the Right” (“Strangers in the Night”), “You Can’t Hide This Biden Guy” (“Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles) and Herman Cain’s “Love Potion Number 9-9-9.”
It’s an only-in-America kind of thing, says Tommie West. “In Russia, you’d be imprisoned, and in Iraq, you’d get your arm chopped off.”