Those irrepressible political satirists, the Capitol Steps, blew through town last Monday in a program of musical parodies, bad puns, and outrageous impersonations before an appreciative audience at the Fred Kavli Theatre. The Steps, in all of their permutations, have been doing this since 1981, when they were born from a group of Senate staffers who began biting the hands that fed them at government parties. Today, the Steps blanket the nation with almost daily performances. An aggregate troupe of thirty performers splits up into teams of five, who are scattered around the country while group founder Elaina Newport (a self-described “extreme moderate”) comes up with most of the material, distributing it along the way to her crews. One of the troupes performs weekly in the nation’s capital.
Musical political satire is as old as the nation itself. In the 1840s, the Hutchinson Family Singers, became the first group to make a living doing so. Due to the short shelf life of political comedy, Newport has to come up with new material on a regular basis, paying close attention to whatever is driving current affairs.
The Steps’ musical parodies utilize the melodies of familiar songs, while keeping just enough of the original lyrics or meter intact to make them funnier. Thus, a skewering of the Chick-Fil-a controversy was sung to the tune of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” A travel agent preaches the wonders of Iraq as a vacation hot spot in “On the Sunny Side of Tikrit” (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”). There were also barbs aimed at the Supreme Court, with Tracy Stevens and Delores King Williams singing “Scalia” (to the tune of “Maria” from “West Side Story”), John Boehner singing“The Loonies on the Right” (“The Music of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera”), and President Obama singing “If I Tax Each Rich Man” (you can guess the original).
What’s amazing about the Capitol Steps’ act is that, except for some mildly racy innuendo, it is all G-rated, unusual in today’s world of rampant profanity and shock comedy. In between the songs come brilliant one-liners, (“How to start a small business in this economy: start a big business and wait.”), mini-sketches, and uproarious sight gags.
The presidential debates are currently on everyone’s minds, so the Steps presented their own version, with Evan Casey (as Romney) and Matt Pearson (as Obama) responding to heady questions like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” in perfect political double-speak.
As a rule, the cast’s impressions are broadly drawn, but some, such as Tracy Stevens’ whining Sarah Palin and Casey’s Bob Dylan are hilariously spot-on. For other targets, such as Joe Biden and Harry Reid, the suggestion is just enough to make it work.
A highlight of a Capitol Steps performance is the “Lirty Dies” speech, a monolog, drily delivered by Mike Thornton, using “spoonerisms,” in which consonants in pairs of words are reversed. Thus, previously innocuous lines become flipped (“Cremodats and Peerublicans comprise the poo-darty system”), resulting in the audience rolling in the aisles.
The satire is ecumenically divided, equally lampooning Republicans and Democrats. The humor is more of the gentle ribbing that Mark Russell used to employ rather than the biting humor typified by television’s Jon Stewart. Thus, everyone walks out of the theater smiling, no matter what their political affiliation.
The Steps saved their funniest bit for last, with the song “We Didn’t Start Satire” (based on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”), which rushes through thirty years of political touchstones, with Thornton and Pearson whipping out illustrative props from baskets. It was enough to even make an empty chair laugh.
– Cary Ginell, originally for the Simi Valley Acorn