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‘Stepping’ on the Toes of Candidates and Politicos in Sanders Theater

When Bill Strauss and Al Gore graduated from Harvard College in 1969, both were headed for Capitol Hill. But there they took divergent paths: while Gore gravely climbed the political ladder, Strauss made a career of pointing and laughing.

Strauss is the founder and director of The Capitol Steps, a musical theater troop that satirizes the latest political headlines and makes its way from Washington to the 50 states to public radio and television—with a yearly stop in Sanders Theater. The show packed a full house in Sanders Theatre last Saturday, as Cambridge Democrats and a few hardy Republicans flocked to see Washington as it really is: vaudeville.

“It’s a cabaret show,” says Strauss, and it doesn’t leave anyone out: the perennial acts atop the Hill—Dubya, Dick, Donald and Condoleeza—are joined by old favorites Bill and Hillary, the hapless Democrats running for president, and Arnold. Onstage, the politicians—plus Rush Limbaugh—carry on their usual antics in songs and skits, like the Mary Poppins classic “Super-California-Recall-Freak-Show-Was-Atrocious,” “The Lieber-Man Can,” “God Bless My SUV,” and from West Side Story, “Korea.”

Even if they “put the mock in democracy,” the Steps are nothing if not fiercely patriotic. All of their songs are plucked right out of Americana: Rush Limbaugh sings to “Dixie” (“Look awa-a-ay/look awa-a-ay/Limbaugh fans”), Howard Dean’s gay supporters serenade him with “Gay Dean Believer” (“Cheer up, Howard Dean/See how much it means/To a gay Dean believer and a homecoming queen”), and Little Orphan Annie is sure that “Saddam Will Come Out Tomorrow.” The presidential candidates get the long-awaited chance to go on Total Recall Live, where Senator John F. Kerry, D-Mass. finally shines (“You like what I said/With my giant head/Oh I’d blow ’em right away/If I weren’t so beh-i-i-ind”) and Gen. Wesley K. Clark acts his rank (“In matters economic, national and liberal/I am the very model of positions that are General”). Even Dubya finds respect among the Steps: “The next time you’re wondering about the president’s mental acumen, remember that he finished a puzzle in only two weeks, and the box said 3-5 years.”

Strauss founded the Steps with two colleagues in 1981 (“when Bob Dole was only 71 years old”), while working for former Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill. After eight years of being a Washington insider, including chief counsel for a Senate sub-committee on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, he couldn’t hold it in anymore. Politics was just too funny.

Along with co-creators Elaina Newport and Mark Eaton (who specializes in Arnold), he and the Steps debuted at Sen. Percy’s Christmas party that year, and soon began a tour of the Hill. Politicians loved them, but because the group members were still working in official posts, the Steps kept their gigs private. “We asked all the reporters to say nothing about it,” says Strauss. “We were all political people.” Only after Percy lost his Senate seat in 1984 did the Steps cut loose from the Capitol, hit the nightclubs, and finally go on the record. But they never lost their Washington fan base: to this day, Strauss insists, their biggest fan is George Bush senior, who’s hosted them seven times. Even Al Gore couldn’t resist joining them on stage once.

The Steps have four ensembles that tour the country simultaneously, with a total of 25 performers and five pianists. They have compiled 23 albums since turning professional, including their latest, Between Iraq and Hard Place. Strauss, Newport and Eaton are still the primary writers.

Strauss’s specialty is a backwards talking routine called “Lirty Dies” that he performs as often as he can, in which that madman Saddam becomes that “sadman Maddam” who has weapons of “ass mannihilation,” Bush is a “learless feeder,” and Clinton laments, in regard to the Florida recount, “That’s no way to lick a peter.” Strauss was once a resident of Adams House and sometimes talks backwards without warning.

The Steps’ greatest benefactor, whether or not he intended to be, is Bill Clinton, whom the Steps rank first among the funniest people in American history (Dan Quayle is runner-up). Strauss even considers Clinton the second funniest person in world history behind Henry VIII. “How do you get funnier?” he asks. “[The scandals] just went on and on.”

With so much mud on one hill, it’s no wonder that the Steps are proud to be American (SUV-owners).

The Capitol Steps will be back at Sanders on April 10 with up-to-date songs, impersonations and jokes about the French.

—Staff writer Lily X. Huang can be reached at lxhuang@fas.harvard.edu.