In 1981, a few senatorial staffers needed something fun to do at a central office Christmas party. This was the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and Elaina Newman was working for moderate Republican Senator Charles Percy.
“We were just thinking, ‘Okay, what do we do at this years Christmas party?’ and I had a co-worker who wrote up some songs,” Newman said. “I had been a piano major in college — uselessly, I thought — and we threw together this show. I think people were astonished at how much we rehearsed — this was a Christmas party — and it was such a hit that people said ‘hey, we've got a party next week, and the week after. And thirty six years later we're still going, basically because nobody told us to stop.”
Like many things in congress, The Capitol Steps comedy group got completely out of control. Things have obviously changed in the meantime, but the troupe is still going strong. They’ll be at the Atwood Concert Hall on Friday March 16th at 7:30 PM, thanks to the Anchorage Concert Association. You can expect song parodies, skits and the “merciless ridicule of politicians of all stripes,” according to the press page.
“Come by if you've ever wanted to see Donald Trump sing a rock song, Bernie Sanders sing a show tune, and Vladimir Putin dance shirtless,” said Newman. “Actually you should put a partial nudity warning in your article, because being authentic, you can't do Vladimir Putin with a shirt.”
The group skewers both sides of the aisle, of course, since that doubles their potential audience.
“The woman who plays Nancy Pelosi is playing Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and even Kim Jung-Un,” Newman laughed. “We were told we had more costume changes than a Cher concert, which I thought was really flattering.”
The Capitol Steps are nothing if not prolific.
“We do about thirty songs and skits in the show,” she said. “You know obviously the party in power is very funny, and we have lots of songs about Trump. But, we'll get all the Elizabeth Warrens, Nancy Pelosis, Chuck Schumers, and Bernie Sanders out there to get both sides. Everybody's got to have a little laugh at these, because [we’ve got] the guy you liked in the first song and the guy you don't like in the second song, and back and forth.”
As a founding member of The Capitol Steps, Newman describes herself as an extreme moderate.
“I'm passionate about my moderation,” she said. “I think both sides are funny when they get too extreme. And actually, to me, the truth is probably somewhere in between. I really have always liked making fun of both sides. And that gives us twice the jokes, it gives us twice the audience.”
The group puts out a new comedy album each year with new material.
“An album has about twenty songs on it, so that can give you some idea [of how much material there is],” Newman said. “Now there are some songs that never make an album because they're such a short time frame. Like I guess we're debating right now whether to put our Scaramouche song on.”
“In one sense, it’s a classic,” she said. “In another sense, in 10 years, will people remember Scaramouche? We’re not sure, really, and that’s the kind of debate we have.”
That song lasted a week in live shows, while the troupe has a song about Putin that has lasted a couple of years. Rotating material into and out of the show is a matter of staying informed. “You just try to decide whether the story is still in the news,” said Newman. “And whether it bumps something else, like ... you know, if you add the Scaramouche song, you may have to retire the song that you had about the predecessor. Like the Sean Spicer song.”
“You are constantly figuring out who is more in the news and what song is working,” she continued. “And the audience is generally the decider, as George Bush would say.”
How does Newman stay on top of the near-constant news cycle? “Well, I read the Washington Post, and the New York Times the most,” she said. “But I also like to watch the late night comedians. I know they're not technically a news source. They really do their research. When Seth Meyers does a closer look, he's really explaining an issue, but in a funny way. So I love to watch those guys, because sometimes it also tells me what issues they think people know about, and are interested in laughing at.”
Newman loves playing everywhere in the country, and the troupe has been to all 50 states. “We've been to the heartlands, and deep red states, and blue states,” she said. “We tend to draw public radio audiences, which are always great. Because those are news junkies for the most part.”
Even in red states, The Capitol Steps draws the public radio crowd. “We kind of got known on NPR,” said Newman. “Because we were on All Things Considered for years, and we still do specials for public radio.”
“We expected to be more controversial than we were,” Newman admitted. “We thought especially that the politicians themselves would object. But the only politician who ever got mad, and I swear this is true, he came up to me after the show, was Senator Alphonse D'Amato from New York. He was mad because we didn't have a song about him.”
The troupes likes doing public shows, like the one in Anchorage this Friday, but they have the occasional corporate gig, as well. “Like those black tie breakfasts with IBM executives; those are a little tougher,” said Newman. “But the big public shows are always fun.”
They’ve performed for several presidents, too.
“I think recently it has gotten harder,” Newman said. “You know, you're afraid it will go viral if you laugh at the wrong joke, if you're a politician. We performed for five presidents, six if you count Hillary. We started under Reagan [and played for] both Bushes, Clinton several times, Bill and Hillary, and Al Gore, we were invited to Al Gore's fortieth birthday party. That was fun.”
The topical nature of the skits can also cause TSA to pause as The Capitol Steps travel around the country.
“We attempted to go through airport security with things that make TSA agents very nervous,” she said. “Like all our props for our terrorism songs. We've had the occasion of being detained by a TSA agent. Usually, it only lasts a few minutes when they realize that the guns are made out of cardboard.”
While U.S. politics have changed quite a bit since The Capitol Steps did their first show at a Congressional Christmas party, Newman says their intent hasn’t.
“Well, [politics is] so much more partisan,” she said. “I mean there's so much more bickering. Under the Reagan years, he used to go out for beers with Tip O'Neill. They were political rivals, but I think they generally liked each other. When I worked on the hill we did bills that both sides cosponsored in great numbers. It wasn't at all like this.”
“Nowadays, I think one of the greatest compliments we can get is someone says to us after a show, ‘Well, gee, I've been fighting with my friends on Facebook, or we had a big disagreement at Thanksgiving dinner over politics, but I came to the show and I laughed and I had a good time. And I feel better.”
Feel better this Friday March 16th at the Atwood Concert Hall with The Capitol Steps. Tickets start at $32.50, though you can get them for $26 each with a 3-show subscription pack. If you’re up for it, there’s a pre-show community dialogue on democracy in collaboration with Let’s Talk Alaska in Voth Hall from 6-7 PM.