Mockery of democracy: Capitol Steps brings its political parodies to Sarasota

Bradenton Herald – Florida has always been a breeding ground for odd material — comic material. Maybe that’s why Capitol Steps loves coming to the Sunshine State. We’ve offered some of the best political hijinks in recent years, which has helped the troupe beef up its act.

“You were really strong in 2000,” said Elaina Newport, co-founder of Capitol Steps. “I actually got to play a hanging chad, which I really enjoyed.”

While playing a chad, she sang a medley called “You Keep Me Hanging On.”

How fitting.

While the troupe is in town, performing at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Tuesday, Newport hopes Florida will try harder to get involved on the political front. Especially when the competition for mockery has been so fierce.

“Now you’re a little less funny than Alaska and South Carolina,” said Newport, who spent seven years working as a legislative assistant to Sen. Charles Percy and later to Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.

The troupe is returning to Sarasota after a five-year hiatus. Its show, which has moved on to fresher material in the ever-changing political landscape, is nearly sold out.

For those not in the know, Capitol Steps found its fame through song parodies — at the expense of politics. The group began at a Christmas party for former Sen. Charles Percy in 1981. Three congressional staffers got together, one of them being Newport, and created song parodies and skits based on the events of the time.

Soon word spread fast about the politically polished group, making them the hottest ticket on Pennsylvania Avenue. Since then, the troupe has been featured on public television and radio.

The latest songs include “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea,” using the familiar tune from “The Sound of Music,” and a Joe Biden-inspired tune “Return To Spenders,” using an old Elvis hit. Then there’s the troupe’s newest holiday album, “Barackin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Even pop culture isn’t immune. The troupe has poked fun at Tiger Woods through its “Eye of the Tiger” parody.

If American politics and pop culture were a musical, it would definitely be something similar to the hilarity Capitol Steps offers.

“We’re like ‘Glee,’ ” Newport said of the troupe. “It is a very weird way to make a living, of course. Whenever I walk around listening to the news or something, I’m not thinking what’s good for the country or what’s bad for the country. I’m thinking what’s just happened and what rhymes with it to make it funny.”

For some of Capitol Steps’ members, material is literally an ear shot away, as much of the troupe consists mainly of former and current Capitol Hill staffers. Auditions are rarely held, but when they are they can get pretty strange, Newport said.

Being in the group is apparently not for the faint of heart. For instance, some auditionees get caught off guard when asked to suddenly sing a song as if they were Osama bin Laden.

It’s hard to tell sometimes what audiences will enjoy, though, when it comes to what the troupe mocks on stage. Today’s top story can end up being yesterday’s news in a week or two. Balloon boy and the White House party crashers are examples of that. But other things, like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, still work like a charm with audiences.

Newport’s personal favorites have changed with the headlines.

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said Bill Clinton,” Newport said. “He was the greatest gift we’ve ever had. But it would be hard to beat Sarah Palin for last year’s award because she’s a gun-toting beauty queen, hockey mom.”

After nearly 30 years, no one has put an end to Capitol Steps’ merry-making musical mischief. Seems the troupe of staffers has had the First Amendment at bat for them.

Or perhaps the power of laughter.

“We thought we’d be told to stop right away,” Newport said of the troupe’s early beginnings. “We thought someone would say ‘Hey, you gotta stop doing this — of making fun of the people you work for.’ But nobody did that. It just amazed us.”

published Jan. 24, 2010

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