The national touring troupe Capitol Steps is about to unleash its vaudevillian style of political parody in Sacramento, and no one in or out of office is safe.
In scathing skits, satirical songs and exaggerated costumes, the award-winning company will continue its mission of “putting the ‘mock’ in ‘democracy’” and “setting scandal to music” in its new show, “Orange Is the New Barack.”
Its “play list” will include “I Want a Man with a Small Hand” by “Melania Trump” (after “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters), and “Putin on the Blitz” (a parody of the Irving Berlin classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz”) in which “Vladimir Putin explains his philosophy of asserting power.”
“Political satire has a great tradition in this country,” said Elaina Newport, producer, “alpha female” and co-founder of the 37-year-old company. “Think of Bob Hope entertaining the troops during World War II. He was very funny, but on a serious note it was a way of getting through a tough time.”
The ensemble was formed in Washington, D.C. in 1981, when staffers who worked for Sen. Charles Percy were hatching plans for a Senate office Christmas party and thought of including a nativity scene. But, as one cast member later put it, “In the whole Congress we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin.”
So they looked to newspaper headlines for content to lampoon. Their party was a hit, to the chagrin of the Reagan administration. Ultimately they left their jobs to form Capitol Steps, which still sources most of its content from the news of the day.
The cast has changed over the decades to include a number of traditional musical-theater professionals, but collectively its members have more than 60 years of staff experience in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Appropriately, Capitol Steps sourced its name from a political scandal. In 1980, Rep. John Jenrette was convicted and sentenced for taking a $50,000 bribe. Separated from her husband the next year, Rita Jenrette wrote an article for Playboy magazine (accompanied by a nude pictorial) in which she recalled the night the couple had “made love on the marble steps that overlook the monuments and the city below.” She later called the claim “a lie. Why I included it is beyond me.”
Capitol Steps has appeared on network TV and cut more than 35 comedy albums. Its National Public Radio special, “Politics Takes a Holiday,” airs twice a year. The group will visit more than 70 venues this year.
We caught up with Newport, 61, at the troupe’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Q: Are you the funniest person in the room?
A: That depends on the room. I was a math geek who grew up reading my older brother’s Mad magazines and listening to (song parodist) Allan Sherman records. I did think at one point that I would have a serious career, but I don’t know any 8-year- olds who would say they want to be a political satirist when they grow up.
Q: How about a peek at the new show?
A: If audiences have ever wanted to see Donald Trump sing a rock song, Bernie Sanders sing a show tune and Vladimir Putin dance shirtless, this is the show for them.
Q: What was that defining 1981 Christmas party like?A: It was a fun era for satire. Ronald Reagan came into office with a group of conservative cabinet members, like Secretary of the Interior James Watt, so we did a song called “Mine Every Mountain.” Ed Meese was his attorney general, so we did “The Meeseketeers.” President Reagan was not known for putting in long hours at the office, so our parody on that subject was “Workin’ 9 to 10.”
Q: How big is the current troupe?
A: We have five pianists, five full-time technical guys, someone who makes our props and costumes, and a pool of about 20 performers. We take turns doing shows, and only five of us do any given show. We’ve had many of the same performers for 20 years or more.
Q: What’s the show like?
A: We do about 30 songs and skits in 90 minutes. So the woman who plays Nancy Pelosi may also play Betsy DeVos, Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. She’s constantly changing her wigs and accents.
Q: To do what you do, you must be apolitical.
A: I consider myself an extreme moderate. People laugh when I say that, but I’m kind of serious. To me, the reasonable course is usually somewhere in the middle. That means I think both sides get ridiculous when they get extreme.
Q: Who writes the song lyrics and the skits?
A: I write about half and my co-writer Mark Eaton writes about half, and the other half cq is written by the cast. See, I told you I was a math geek. Pretty much all the performers have had ideas from time to time, sometimes in a panic on stage when they forget the actual written lines.
Q: Why is political satire so enduring?
A: Politics has gotten very partisan, and often there are serious issues in the headlines that we need to address. So, sometimes our job is harder because of that, but maybe more important. The biggest compliment anyone could give us after a performance is, “I had a good laugh and I really needed that.”
Q: Your troupe’s inside connections to Capitol Hill have served it well.
A: When we first started, it gave us a “hook” – we were an oddity, like the tap-dancing cat. But it had a downside. We had to be very careful not to be too inside-politics. For example, we couldn’t say, “Gee, let’s write a song about Sen. John McCain’s amendment.” We had to keep our song subjects to the lead stories in the news, things people would know about.
Q: The same must still be true today.
A: Yes, but these days we also have to pay attention to what is trending on social media. And sometimes we really don’t know if an audience is focused on a story until we (perform) a joke.
For example, when the president had his physical, I saw on Facebook that people were laughing about how he had supposedly grown an inch. So, I wrote a joke about how he was finally the proper height for his weight. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it did, so I assumed people saw the story.
Q: You say the shows’ content is “unpredictable” due to breaking news. Sounds like a lot of scrambling.
A: Our performers have to be fairly fearless. I remember when Pope Francis was being chosen. The world was focused on the story, but no one knew anything about him except that he was from Argentina. So, we used the song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and sent it to a performer with about four hours to learn it. Fortunately, we already had a pope costume in our basement.
Q: So you’re chasing an ever-changing political landscape.
A: The stories are crazy and easy pickings, but exhausting at the same time because the news cycle is so much faster now. One week the story might be that we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, so we write a song about that. But then the next week, no one’s thinking about that because (pornographic film actress) Stormy Daniels is giving an interview.
Q: As humorist Dave Barry is fond of saying, “I’m not making this up,” and you can’t make up the stuff of politics.
A: Comedy is based on exaggeration, so in some cases it’s tough to stay ahead of the politicians. For example, when Donald Trump was first running, I wrote a joke for our Trump character because I thought it was an exaggeration of something Trump would say: “When I’m out on the campaign trail, you won’t see me kissing any babies. Babies are LOSERS.” But a month later, he actually got into a spat with a baby at a campaign rally. The baby was crying and he asked to have the baby removed.
As for what to satirize, that’s tricky because some stories come and go so fast. That’s especially true when the president is on Twitter every day. So, we have a song set to “Rockin’ Robin” that has the refrain “Tweet, tweet,” (the lyrics of which) can be changed depending on the Tweet of the week.
Q: Which administration has been the easiest to lampoon?
A: Trump and Clinton, although as a writer I did love coming up with malapropisms for George W. He wasn’t always as funny as Clinton, but he did have a “self-defecating” sense of humor. And George Bush Sr. wasn’t quite as funny as Reagan, but he did pick Dan Quayle as his vice president, so that helped.
Q: Capitol Steps has skewered hundreds of politicians and political issues over the decades. Are there evergreens?
A: We still get a laugh by bringing Bill Clinton on stage, although that’s partly because he stayed in the news because of Hillary. Al Gore is still funny. And Anthony Weiner! Still funny! I suspect Trump will be funny for many years to come.
Q: What about pushback from your targets?
A: We expected that, but it really didn’t happen. For the first several years, we thought people would object, or tell us to stop, or fire us! But many politicians invited us to perform. The only one who got mad was New York Sen. Al D’Amato, who came up to me after a show and was mad because we didn’t have a song about him.
Q: Joking aside, what worries you most about America’s involvement in global politics?
A: Nuclear war. It’s s tricky to make fun of, because it does keep us awake at night. But even with the most serious issue, there is a politician who is fair game. So, we dress someone up as Kim Jong Un and send him out to sing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?”
Q: So there’s still hope?
A: I’m not the best one to ask, because I don’t get up in the morning and turn on the news, thinking “Is this good or bad for the country?” I think, “Is it funny? And what rhymes with it?”
Capitol Steps: 'Orange Is the New Barack'
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
When: 8 p.m. Saturday April 7; doors open at 7 p.m.
Cost: $47-$67 at www.crestsacramento.com or at the box office Information: (916) 476-3356 and www.capsteps.com