Satirists teasing D.C. Capitol Steps lead to Washington's lighter side
Washington — WITH words as their weapons, a sassy musical octet of Capitol Hill staffers attacks world issues and international egos, parodying political officialdom and hacking its targets down to size. Since the Capitol Steps began six years ago, audiences, including the people it ridicules, have stayed with the group through ``four Russian leaders and a doubling of the national debt,'' says co-founder and principal lyricist Bill Strauss. ``We want a tinge to our humor - with glancing blows, not body blows. We want our humor to smart but not be too biting. We enjoy the lighter side of Washington. You must have humor because the issues are so serious. I like to think our songs have some truth,'' continues Strauss, a Harvard Law School graduate and now a public-interest lawyer writing a book about American history. The father of four, he is the oldest, and the only married, member of the group.
Acknowledging that all the singers are ``humor junkies,'' Dave Gencarelli, who works in legislative affairs for the US Customs Service, says, ``We're always sharpening the knives among us'' while searching for ``funny, not painful, mirth. Ours is down-to-earth thinking of politics.'' Quips Jim Aidala, environmental policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service and the group's technical director as well as a performer, ``We're the V8 of the professional fast lane.''
To the tune of ``76 Trombones,'' these congressional staffers parade on stage as if at a political rally, singing: ``Seventy-six unknowns are the candidates/ A hundred-and-ten more soon will declare/ On Capitol Hill you'll find/ Not a member left behind/ Except for Ted, who hasn't got a prayer.''
Strauss claims the group is bipartisan. ``Our political heart is independent.'' And to prove it, he points to a song where President Reagan gets his, sung to ``Nine to Five'': ``Workin' nine to ten/ Puttin' total effort in/ That's my regimen/ Sixty solid workin' minutes./ As your President/ I won't cut that any smaller/ 'Cause I get free rent/ And two hundred thousand dollars.''
They zap him again in ``Meet the Press,'' a parody of ``What a Wonderful World.'' Reagan sings: ``Don't know much about government/ Don't know where the budget funds are spent/ Don't know what the deficits will do/ Don't know if my anecdotes are true/ But I do know that one and one are three/ Since I said it to you on TV....''
The Capitol Steps performs nationwide about 180 times a year. Co-founder, musical director, and principal pianist Elaina Newport, who is legislative aide to New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato, says the group's goals are to be funny and play someday at the White House. They almost made it there once before.
``Someone from the White House called at Christmas saying, `Gee, we're sorry you're not invited to play at our Christmas party, but we thought about you,'' Newport recalls with a laugh.
Vice President George Bush enjoys the songs the group has slung at him. ``I want to hear all your songs about me. Don't cut anything,'' he has told Strauss. Three times Bush has appeared on stage with the group.
The Capitol Steps grew out of a performance Strauss and others gave at former Senator Charles Percy's 1981 Christmas party. It has evolved from a sustaining hobby to a professional act.
At first the group performed free; now it charges $4,000 for an evening's performance of 20 to 30 songs. Altogether Strauss and Newport have written 240 songs, of which 50 are in active use.
The group now has four record albums and tapes: ``The Capitol Steps - Live!'' ``We Arm the World,'' ``Thank God I'm a Contra Boy!'' and ``Workin' 9 to 10.'' It performs regularly at Chelsea's, a dinner theater in Georgetown, and at hundreds of private events each year.
Soviet officials have invited the group to perform there, says Strauss, provided the singers agree not to satirize the Soviets. ``They said it's not right to make fun of your hosts, [but] we will go only if we can do an uncensored show,'' Strauss adds. ``I've been thinking of sending Gorbachev one of our tapes, just as Samantha Smith wrote to Andropov, cold. I expect he'd enjoy it immensely.''
Maybe Strauss is right. In ``Gorby Gorbachev,'' sung to Jim Croce's ``Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,'' the Kremlin pacesetter becomes the ``hottest Red since Andropov,'' ``the coolest dude since Ustinov,'' ``the world's first Yuppie Slav,'' and ``the biggest bang since Molotov.''