Shtick To The Truth

Capitol Steps' writers find plenty of grist for their satiric songs by scanning the news and savoring the scandals in Washington.

January 19, 1999|By SARAH PEKKANEN | SARAH PEKKANEN,SUN STAFF

Inside a small, elegant office a short drive south from Capitol Hill the employees are working overtime. They monitor CNN, C-SPAN and NPR. They tap into the Internet, tracing each twist and turn of the White House scandal. They pore over newspapers and Newsweek.

In other words, these 30-and-40-year-olds spend their days much like the Hill staffers whose jobs it is to frantically follow the impeachment trial.

Their nights, however, are another story.

Then, they don costumes -- a black beret, say, or a Paula Jones-style plastic nose (before the surgery) -- and hit the stage, summing up the week's scandals in song. For the Capitol Steps, a bipartisan troupe composed mostly of former Hill employees business has been very good indeed lately.

"There are a few professions that prey on the misfortunes of others, like undertakers and car repossessors -- and comedians," explains Elaina Newport, producer and co-writer of the constantly evolving show.

That's why the group rejoiced when Gary Hart was caught aboard Monkey Business. Cheered when former Sen. Bob Packwood was accused of lecherous advances. And the trouble plaguing the current Commander-in-Chief? It's like a gift from the gods.

"We are among those Americans who want this trial to last all the way through [Bill Clinton's] term," the show's director and other writer, Bill Strauss, says gleefuly. "Let's have more revelations! Let's hear from all the Jane Does! Let's get all the details out in front of the public!"

The public, despite its lack of interest in the presidential peccadilloes, can't seem to get enough of the Capitol Steps' antics. At a jam-packed Saturday night performance at Chelsea's restaurant in Georgetown, the crowd clapped and hooted as Newport, in a Hillary wig, clutched a cleaver and serenaded her husband:

"I've had enough of it,

Here's what you'll get,

Snipped like a Bobbit in two.

Buddy our pet,

Went to the vet,

And that taught him not to stray."

Among those cheering were Paula and Mark Witkin, in town for a wedding. The Boston couple attended part of the impeachment trial before taking in the Capitol Steps' show. The events complemented each other perfectly according to Mark Witkin, who offered this opinion: "If Bill Clinton were the captain of the Titanic, he'd be the first one off the ship."

A Little tinkering

The Capitol Steps' shtick is simple. They take melodies of popular songs and rewrite the words. Thus, "The Lady is a Tramp" becomes "The Linda is a Tripp." And "Fool on the Hill" -- well, that doesn't really require much tinkering.

What has made the act work for early 20 years -- aside from a never-ending supply of political dirty laundry -- is the sheer talent of the 27 performers, who work in groups of six. Saturday night's cast included Anne Willis Hill (as Linda Tripp), whose college major was voice and opera. And Porter Koontz, a dead-ringer for Bill Clinton, performed in community theater -- and once worked for Maryland Republican Rep. Connie Morella.

Although the surreal elements of the White House scandal have been a financial boon for the group, they also present challenges for Newport and Strauss, the two writers, who must constantly come up with new songs.

Mother lode

Last week, the two knew they had rich material when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt pointed to his latest victim, the much-married Republican Congressman Bob Barr. But how to translate it into catchy verse?

The first step was to boil down the essence of Flynt's actions: He was really "outing" politicians, Newport decided. She searched her 117-page computerized list of song titles for those containing the word "out," while Strauss also played with possibilities. He quickly hit upon the perfect song -- the high-energy "Shout!" Newport pulled out her rhyming dictionary, and the two went to work.

Just before the show, Willis Hill stood in front of a mirror, rehearsing the lyrics:

"Hypocrites are gonna pay,

G.O.P. you're gonna pay,

Hear Larry say,

What did he say?

Old Abe Lincoln, he was gay...

Henry Hyde you're comin'

OUT!

Speaker Livingston, you're

OUT!"

Since the song was so new, she carried a cheat sheet with the lyrics on stage, something she hates to do -- but how else can a performer keep up with the scandal's latest mini-scandal offspring?

That's one drawback of the rapidly unfolding saga. Another is that the group appears to have lost a loyal follower. Although the Capitol Steps performed at Al Gore's 48th birthday party, and did events for Clinton both in Arkansas and in Washington, the president hasn't invited them over lately.

Maybe next year

It's probably just as well. "Right now," Strauss reflects, "it would be hard to do a show for him."

But they've gained a replacement fan. Right after the house impeachment vote, someone else requested a private performance for his staff: special prosecutor Ken Starr.

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