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Friday October 31st 2014

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By Jennifer Leigh

Since 1981, the Capitol Steps have been “putting the MOCK in Democracy” as the website states.

It all started when a group of Senate staffers were looking for entertainment for a Capitol Hill Christmas party.

“We considered doing a traditional nativity play, but in all of the Senate, we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin,” joked co-founder Elaina Newport. “So, we wrote a few songs, and the main reason we are still going 32 years later, is that no one told us to stop.”

In the early days of the Capitol Steps, it was required for any auditioning members to work, or previously have worked, on Capitol Hill. Newport herself worked for Senator Charles Percy from Illinois.

“He was one of those moderate Republicans you don’t see anymore, at least not in the wild,” she said.

In 1996, the Steps were so busy — Newport credits the Clinton Administration — that the group expanded and hired Washington-area performers. Today, the troupe is about half and half between people who have worked on Capitol Hill and those who haven’t.

When it comes to finding talented singers on the Hill, it wasn’t hard, Newport explained.

“The main challenge is not just finding someone who can sing, but someone who can sing like Kim Jong-un or Joe Biden,” she said.

Political satire doesn’t get better than songs such as “Stand by Iran” (to the tune of “Stand by Your Man”) or “I Like Big Bucks” (to the tune of “Baby Got Back”). After three decades of tours and dozens of albums, the Capitol Steps have amassed fans, both Republican and Democrat and even a few politicians.

“Over the years, one of the big surprises is that the politicians are really good sports,” said Newport.  “Many of them have invited us to perform. We’ve performed for five presidents (six if you count Hillary) and the only politician who ever got mad was Senator Al D’Amato from New York. He came up to me after the show, and he was mad because we didn’t have a song about him. So, I guess the worst thing a politician can be is ignored.”

Inspiration for the Capitol Steps’ songs stems from puns on names or headline stories. From issues to scandals, the songs’ punch lines have no political preference. And whether you’re a regular commenter on Politico.com or a politics neophyte, you’ll be laughing.

“Sometimes, like when the most recent Pope was chosen, you have a great opportunity because in this case, he is from Argentina, so we could use ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,’” Newport said.  “Other times, you’re looking for a pun on the politician’s name. Like during the election, we did ‘Obama Mia!’ And then other times, you’re looking at the issue. When the Obamacare websites were giving everyone fits, we did ‘I Don’t Know How to Log In’ (to the tune of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar).”

Lynne Marshall, director of promotions and outreach at WUWF, describes the Capitol Steps as “equal opportunity offenders.”

“It will be a dark auditorium where you can laugh with people who may not agree with you because the Steps take no prisoners,” Marshall said. “No matter how many times you have seen the Steps, they always have fresh new material. Anytime we can laugh, we make room to think about how things could be better. When we can laugh at ourselves we are less angry and frustrated and there is a chance that we can work together to solve our own community’s problems.”

Bill Clinton, Newport said, was the “golden age” of satire.

“During some of the Clinton years, the headlines were so ridiculous that you hardly needed comedians — we were so redundant,” she said.

Florida has also been a major contributor to the Capitol Steps’ act as well, which the group is thankful for.

“Well, every once in a while we like to get to Florida, to thank Florida for all the material,” Newport said. “Back in 2000, I got to play a hanging chad on stage and sing ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ — that was fun.”

Visiting Florida, and more specifically Pensacola, is a treat for the Capitol Steps.

“Pensacola is always a great audience because of the NPR station there. WUWF is just great, and its listeners are very well-informed and get all of the jokes. A lot of them come out to see us, which we love,” Newport said.

Not only is a night out with the Capitol Steps entertaining, it supports WUWF, which provides the community with public radio programs such as the Capitol Steps’ performances, local news, live music events and more.

“Some folks may be listeners, some may be members and some may not listen to WUWF, but it is a chance to come together and laugh — a benefit at any time,” said Marshall. “Any proceeds after costs are covered will benefit WUWF’s programming.”

As headlines change, so does the Capitol Steps’ show. And as long as the world provides the material, the Steps will write it into song.

“Honestly, when we first started, we were mainly just trying not to get fired from our day jobs. So, we did not think this would last,” Newport said. “But it’s been a wild ride. We have a song that we close our show with, where we try to summarize everything that has happened in our history — in just three minutes. It was fun to write that, because so many of the stories have been crazy. Think about it — Dan Quayle spelling potato with an ‘e,’ Clarence Thomas’ Coke can, Dick Cheney shooting someone in the face and Anthony Weiner Tweeting his underwear. These are stories you could not have made up.”

CAPITOL STEPS
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25
WHERE: Saenger Theater, 118 S. Palafox
COST: $38
DETAILS: pensacolasaenger.com or 800-745-3000