The Capitol Steps: Washington's Own Political Satire Troupe

Stage with performers in the background and a seated audience in the foreground
Capitol Steps Performing at the Amphitheater in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. (Source: The Capitol Steps) 

While the months leading up to a presidential election can be stressful for many in Washington, D.C., the presidential race provides a gold mine of material for the Capitol Steps.[1]

The D.C. based political satire troupe’s first performance was on December 11, 1981 when a group of six staffers from Senator Charles H. Percy’s office entertained colleagues at his Christmas party.[2] The performers were apprehensive about how they would be received. As co-founder Elaina Newport said, "We thought maybe we would offend people or somebody might fire us or tell us to stop."[3] During their first performance the group sang nine bipartisan song parodies and performed skits about political headlines and scandals of the day. Fortunately for the group, both the staffers and bosses laughed at all the right places! Following the Percy Christmas party the group performed additional shows in hallways and foyers and other parties on the Hill.[4]

Soon word started to leak out about the musical comedy emanating from Capitol Hill. By January 1984, the group -- which had named itself the Capitol Steps in reference to a scandal involving South Carolina Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita -- had a regular gig at the Shorham’s Marquis Lounge, where they were frequently joined by local satirist Mark Russell.[5] After a brief engagement at the Artists’ Room at the Bread Oven on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Steps moved to Chelsea’s cabaret in Georgetown in the fall of 1986.[6]

Congressional scandals and elections dominated the troupe’s early repertoire. And, as co-founder Bill Strauss explained, the Steps made sure to poke fun at both sides of the aisle: "For some shows in the 1980’s we marked a little R (for Republican) and D (for Democrat) next to each song, indicating which way it tilted, making sure we never leaned too far one way or the other. Too many Ds and we’d write a new R song."[7]

Album Cover with people sitting on the Steps of the Capitol. The title of the album is "The Capitol Steps-Live! at the Shoreham"
Album cover for "The Capitol Steps-Live! at the Shoreham" released in 1985 (Source: Wikipedia)

The comedy moonlighting presented some interesting challenges for the group’s members in their day jobs on the Hill. As co-founder Elaina Newport recalled, "We would go to some meeting, in advance of a hearing, only to have our hosts freeze in mid-discussion, peer at us, lean forward, and ask ‘Hey aren’t you the Capitol Steps?’ We’d admit that, yes, we were but that we also had real jobs to do after which they would often ask us, half in jest, whether we were looking for material."[8]

The troupe’s transition from hobbyists to professional performers started in 1984 when Senator Percy lost his bid for reelection. Bill Strauss quit his day job on the Hill in 1985 and "turned his downstairs den into the Capitol Steps World Headquarters."[9] The first album The Capitol Steps-Live! at the Shoreham was released in the spring of 1985. 

In 1987 the Capitol Steps transformed from a 501(c)(3) nonprofit ‘charity’ to a real for-profit corporation headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.[10] At the time, the rest of the cast quit their jobs on the Hill and made a full professional commitment to the group. However, in order to maintain the cachet of "Hill Staffers," the group made it a requirement that all Capitol Steps employees have some sort of past Capitol Hill experience on their resume.[11]

This would remain a requirement until 1996, when the troupe expanded to keep up with demand during Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. The Steps hired a number of new professional performers and expanded from one cast to five casts. Five troupes could now perform five shows in different locations simultaneously!

September 13, 1989 Advertisement for WETA Performance
Washington Post Advertisment for September 9, 1989 performance televised on WETA. (Source: The Washington Post)

Over the years, the Capitol Steps have performed just about everywhere you can imagine, including high schools, public and private fundraisers, theaters and festivals. They’ve appeared on television and radio and in front of Presidents and Vice Presidents. They even performed for the sequestered jury during the O.J. Simpson trial.[12] During Presidential Election years, the group has shows practically every day leading up to election, often three or four shows a day.[13]

The shows are constantly changing according to the news headlines. As Elaina Newport told the Washington Post in 1985, “lyrics are often changed, axed or added minutes before show time.” This fact requires performers to be expert in quickly memorizing and performing songs. For example, a parody to the tune “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, about the Pope in 2015 was written and memorized by a Capitol Steps employee within four hours of show time.[14]

Since 1981 the Capitol Steps have morphed from a hobby to a small business to a national touring company.[15] The troupe has continued to reach an ever widening audience. They have produced 40 albums and published two books including Fools on the Hill and Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders. They perform across the country and, since 2000, every Friday and Saturday night at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. 

The Capitol Steps in Action

  • Seven members of the Capitol Steps with Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
    The Capitol Steps with Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)
  • Capitol Steps performers standing with President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan in front of the White House.
    The Capitol Steps with President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at the 1988 Congressional Picnic. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)
  • Three men performing on stage at WETA with a sign that says "Columbia".
    Dave Gencarelli, Duncan Holloman, and Richard Paul performing for the WETA special in 1989. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)
  • Seated audience in the foreground with the Capitol Steps and President H.W. Bush standing on stage in the White House in the background.
    The Capitol Steps on stage with President George H.W. Bush after their 1991 White House performance. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)
  • Jim Aidala and Bill Strauss standing with President George H.W. Bush in the White House.
    Jim Aidala and Bill Strauss talking with President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1991. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)
  • Three people looking in different directions on a stage.
    Jamie Zemarel, Anne Johnson, and Mike Carruthers performing at the Houseman Theater in 1997. (Photo courtesy of The Capitol Steps)

The Capitol Steps' humor isn't only directed at the folks on Capitol Hill. Local politicians are fair game, too, as D.C. mayor Marion Barry found out in 1990. Following the the mayor's arrest for crack cocaine use, the Steps recorded “Proud Barry” to the tune of “Proud Mary.” Take a listen! (Audio used with permission of The Capitol Steps.)

 

Proud Barry Lyrics

He lost a good job in the city
Just cuz’ Mayor Barry 
Played a little joke
There is no escaping
The FBI was taping
Barry sayin’ everything goes better with coke
Big wheels keep on growing
Don’t you know that Proud Barry’s going to be going
Yes, he is!

Goin’ , Goin’, Goin’, Goin’,
Goin’ Up the River
That’s right!
Goin’, Goin’, Goin’, Goin’,
Goin’ Up the River

We’ll tell you all why he did it
He was watching television Sunday night
Saw em’ givin’ money
For a film that’s funny
So, he took a crack and got his name in lights!
The jury thinks’ it’s groovy
Yes, they do!
Watching Barry’s hot home movie
Ah Ha!

Rollin’ rollin’ rolllin’ rollin’
Rollin’ on the River
That’s Right!
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’ on the River

Rolling on Joan Rivers
Oh, yeah! Yeah!

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Capitols Steps name is derived from a 1981 sex scandal in which South Carolina Congressmen John Jenrette and his wife Rita allegedly had sex on the steps of the Capitol. According to The Washington Post, “[Co-founder Elaina] Newport . . . came up with the name, the Capitol Steps, in memory of Rita Jenrette’s celebrated tryst. . . The runner-up name was Washington Maul.”
  2. ^ William Strauss and Elaina Newport, “Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies, and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders” (Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002), 9
  3. ^ Elaina Newport, interview by Lila Spitz, August 29, 2016.
  4. ^ William Strauss and Elaina Newport, “Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies, and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders” (Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002), 11.
  5. ^ Ibid. 28. For the first fourteen months after starting at the Shoreham Hotel, the troupe performed for free, but in February of 1983, the group began charging $3 for the show.
  6. ^ Gamarekian, B. (1987, Jun 17). Washington Talk: Avocations; Song and Dance and Politics: The Capitol Steps. New York Times Retrieved from http://proquest.com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/docview/426524274?accountid=46215
  7. ^ William Strauss and Elaina Newport, “Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies, and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders” (Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002), 28.
  8. ^ Ibid. 21.
  9. ^ Ibid. 37.
  10. ^ Ibid. 40.
  11. ^ Taken together the performers have worked in a total of eighteen Congressional offices and represent 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience.
  12. ^ Ken Ringle,” Another Troupe Deployment: The Capitol Steps Climb Higher With Every Scandal,” The Washington Post D1 & D8(1998) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post
  13. ^ Ken Ringle,” Another Troupe Deployment: The Capitol Steps Climb Higher With Every Scandal,” The Washington Post D1 & D8(1998) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post
  14. ^ As co-founder Elaina Newport states, “A couple of years ago there was a new Pope . . .we did not know anything about the guy except for the fact that he was from Argentina. So, we said, well, let’s take the song “Don’t cry for me Argentina” and we happened to have a Pope costume in the basement and I wrote up something that was basically nothing except, Oh, is the pope Catholic kind of jokes because we did not know anything about this guy except Argentina and Catholic. We sent it to the performer and we put it in the show that night and the guy had to learn it in four hours. The audience really appreciates that because they want, like wholly, wholly crap they did something in four hours [quick turnaround time]”. 
  15. ^ Elaina Newport and William Strauss, Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders. (United States of America: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002), 1.