Ripping on  the headlines

Ripping on the headlines

The Capitol Steps fashion humorous tunes from serious news at Caltech

By Carl Kozlowski 05/02/2013

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In a world filled with bad news, it’s sometimes difficult to find a song in your heart. But for Elaina Newport and the rest of the comedic musical troupe The Capitol Steps, there’s no choice; it’s their job to make audiences laugh through songs about the topics in each week’s headlines.  

Newport and her composing colleagues — a bipartisan group of former US Senate office staffers who started performing and recording in 1981 — will bring their silly songs about serious matters to the stage of Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Even during a month’s time that saw Boston Marathon bombings, a massive fertilizer-plant explosion in West Texas and another explosion in Michigan, Newport says there’s always a way to entertain people.

“We don’t have a song about Boston right now,” says Newport in a phone interview from The Capitol Steps headquarters in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. Sept. 11 is a good example to compare this time with, and, she said, “For a while we were just comic relief to help get people’s minds off it. But gradually we came out with ideas that weren’t inappropriate, like a song about those pretty stupid color-coded states of alert. Or about people calling the Department of Homeland Security because they thought powdered sugar left on their doorstep was anthrax.”  

Another touchy challenge in recent years came in finding anything funny about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. Newport says the key to satirizing a situation like that lies in finding a politician who can get blamed more than most for the mess, such as then-FEMA head Michael Brown, who was told “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” by his boss, President George W. Bush. On the other hand, on a subject that was not so touchy, the troupe dove in immediately with a song about the recent election of Pope Francis, whose Argentinean roots inspired the Steps to craft a song based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
Newport was one of the founding members of the Steps, which began at a Christmas party for former moderate Republican Sen. Charles Percy. They slowly built up more shows throughout the Washington area and added national touring dates in quick succession — a move that paved the way for them to quit their Senate jobs and tour and record full time. The Steps now have 30 albums, including the latest, “Fiscal Shades of Gray.”

“We write it all within the group, on piano only, and we have five groups of five available for concerts at any time,” says Newport. “We do 30 songs in a show, so a woman playing Nancy Pelosi in one song may play Hillary Clinton or [Homeland Security chief] Janet Napolitano in others. We’re always changing costumes, and one reviewer even said we have more changes than a Cher concert.”

But the question remains: In a show in which a song about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is based on the classic Harry Chapin tune “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and a song about Sen. Marco Rubio and the Gang of Eight senators negotiating immigration reform is called “Living La Vida Marco,” have they ever gone too far?

“It’s never things you’d expect would offend people,” laughs Newport. “You can do songs about war and all types of serious issues, no problem. Then we did ‘Up on the Roof’ and dressed a guy like a dog and sent him out to sing as [Mitt] Romney’s dog, which was left on the roof of his car. I thought it was a no-brainer that that would work, but the audience was really not into it. Too many dog lovers. It’s not the song about Iraq that’s controversial, but the one the dog lover doesn’t like.”

The Capitol Steps perform at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call (626) 395-4652 or write events@caltech.edu.

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