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Ozarks Public Broadcasting brings the Capitol Steps to the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield on Thursday August 7. KSMU's Randy Stewart talked by phone with the comedy troupe's co-founder Elaina Newport in her Washington, DC office.
RANDY STEWART: I understand you were a music major, and you didn't actually--well, I guess you're using your training NOW, but you weren't using it during your several years on Capitol Hill.
ELAINA NEWPORT: (giggles) Well, I don't think anything can really prepare you for life in the Capitol Steps! I mean, I started out as a music major in college, then I switched to business, and then I went to Capitol Hill to see what I wanted to do when I grew up, and basically just loved it down there, found there wre a lot of interesting people and issues, and stayed there for seven years.
RANDY: But it got to be too difficult to do that AND do the shows too.
ELAINA: Yes, I think they noticed that I wasn't showing up most days at my day job around 1987-88. We'd been doing the Capitol Steps for about six years, we started travelling all over. And they were like, "All right, you've got to pick one or the other." And I said, well, this is really not hard, becuase it's much more respectable to make fun of politics!
RANDY: Your co-founder was Bill Strauss, and I think a lot of people were saddened to hear that he died of pancreatic cancer last December. He survived for eight years--that's quite remarkable.
ELAINA: Yes. He was diagnosed in 1999, and he actually sort of at that point went off and did a lot of other things. He wrote a couple of book and founded a high school theater program locally here (in D.C.). So he hadn't been as involved in the Capitol Steps. But he was the first one ever to do "Lirty Dies."
RANDY: So who's doing that now?
ELAINA: Well, we have several people who do "Lirty Dies." I guess you know that's the flipping of the words--so instead of, like, "the American way of life," you say "the American lay of wife!" Everything sounds dirty when it's flipped!
RANDY: Absolutely--it sure does! (Elaina laughs) Depends on how you pick your topics, anyway. Now, the group can basically be in multiple places at once now, because you started out as five members, and now each show has five performers--but you have how many total members in the Capitol Steps?
ELAINA: We have about 30 performers, but each show--you're correct--has five people in it and a pianist. And what's interesting about that numer is that, throughout the show you'll see, maybe, 30, 32 songs and skits... and only five performers! So there's a tremendous backstage flurry of--the guy who's playing Vladimir Putin has to play Dick Cheney and Larry Craig, and... I don't know, maybe back in the day had to play Janet Reno too! But there's all sorts of wigs flying and props flying, costume changes. It's almost an aerobic kind of comedy!
RANDY: But you also have to have, in every troupe, somebody who can play... all the major "players", so to speak, in politics.
ELAINA: Right. And a lot of times we deal with "cartoon characters" of the people--like if it's "Ross Perot" in the show, you have a whole suitcase that carries the ears! "Mitt Romney" had to have a whole suitcase for the hair--
RANDY: Do you have to book a separate seat on the airplane for the ears?
ELAINA: (laughs) You should see us go through airports! I mean, especially because we have songs about, gosh, the Taliban, so you've got to have all the Arab headdresses and everything! (laughs)
RANDY: That must've gotten hairy in recent years.... Now, wasn't there a rule in the beginning--I guess it was Bill (Strauss's) rule, actually--that all the performers had to keep their day jobs, and that everybody who performed in the Capitol Steps, in fact, had to be a Congressional staffer? Because, looking at the bios of the 30-some performers now, it seems like about half of them are musical-theater veterans.
ELAINA: Right. Well, for the first 15 years we were around we had a strict rule that you hD to at least have some Capitol Hill experience to join the Steps. And that was kind of because we were laughing at ourselves a bit. That was kind of our schtick. But in 1996 Bill Clinton started making us so busy that (chuckling) we had to hire some Washington-area performers to keep up with the demand. And so it's about half-and-half these days.
RANDY: Because you do show every weekend at the Ronald Reagan Building and Trade Center in their amphitheatre, I guess year-round.
ELAINA: That's right.
RANDY: And then you have the national touring companies as well.
ELAINA: Right, and we mix it up and we perform with different people on different nights. And that's fun because you surprise each other onstage, it keeps the show fresh, and it keeps us from killing each other!
RANDY: You're seein' the SAME people onstage every night! (Elaine laughs) Have there been periods in the last 25 years that have been difficult to satirize, or anything that you had to consider off-limits?
ELAINA: Well, there are serious issues, things that are hard to handle. (Hurricane) Katrina, for example--BIG example of something that was not funny at all at its core. But fortunately you have, you know, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," or you have the politicians messing up or FEMA messing up. And there's usually a subject for a song even in the most serious situations.
RANDY: Now, when the company does tour dates, do you ever try to craft any material that's locally relevant, or is that just too much trouble?
ELAINA: It depends, because sometimes there's a blur between whether something's "local" or a national story. When you're in California, Arnold's kind of national news AND local news, or things like that. But we stick mostly to the national headlines. If you have a local scandal, please tell us! Or if you could CREATE one, that would be great! (chuckles)
RANDY: SO what can Springfield expect to hear on August 7?
Well, it's I think, the only show in the country where, gosh, you can hear George Bush sing a rock song; Kim Jong-il sing a show tune; the supreme Court do a disco; and maybe even John McCain on a Beatles tune! (laughs)
RANDY: Sounds good to me! "Fair Use" has been very, very good to ou guys over the years--instead of having to write all original songs, you've been able to fit your lyrics to established tunes. And that has helped you tremendously, I would think.
ELAINA: Right, and you also get a laugh on the parody, because--right now, for example, we have a song where Barack and Hillary try to grit their teeth and work together on the campaign trail. And somebody said, "Why don't you do it to 'Ebony and Ivory?'" We took that tune, but we decided to do a little twist and do "Ebony and Ovary!" So that works pretty well. (laughs)
RANDY: Do you have any idea which members of the group are going to be here?
ELAINA: I do, if you have a minute for my computer to boot that up.
ELAINA: 'Cause we all hate that little hour-glass thing.... Okay, we've got Mike Thornton; Brian Ash, who's been with us, I think, gosh, 21 years--and he's only 41, so that give you some idea of how he's wasted his life(!) (laugh); Brad VanGrack--he does the "Lirty Dies" in this cast; Tracey Stephens; and Ann Margaret Schmitt.