When the Capitol Steps return for their annual Fourth of July shows at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, it will be their twenty-first consecutive visit. “They’ve become a part of the culture of the holiday in this town,” says Robb Woulfe, executive director of the festival. “Ann Arbor audiences are ideal for the Steps. They’re smart, they’re quick, they get it.”
The Steps get it too; they get political satire better than anyone. Formed in 1981, when three Senate staffers came up with some songs and skits for a holiday office party, the Steps have gone on to record thirty-one albums, have appeared frequently on TV and National Public Radio, and have performed at the White House for every president since Reagan.
I first saw the Steps in the late eighties, in a small club in Washington D.C., and then again last July at the Power Center. Of course, their material was completely different each time (there’s never, it seems, a shortage of current politics and politicians to lampoon, lambaste, skewer, and roast), but the format of the show has–fortunately–not changed. The Steps have adhered strictly to an “if it works, don’t fix it” philosophy. Rather than puffing up their act with big showy gimmicks, they’ve kept their focus squarely where it belongs, on fiendishly clever, masterfully crafted comic lyrics, matched with the melodies of perfectly chosen familiar songs. With just piano accompaniment, a handful of minimalist props, some costume changes, and terrific impersonations of figures in the news, the Steps fashion an uproariously entertaining show.
Their prolific and consistently high quality parodies are all the more remarkable considering how fast they are written and rehearsed. When I saw them in Washington, they had material about events less than a week old. Among their latest bits of shtick are dialogues featuring a dating service employee helping clients create introductory videos. The clients are politicians such as the former governor of California, or the current congressman from New York (with, for comedians, the heaven-sent name) whose peccadilloes have been exposed (or who’ve exposed themselves, as the case may be). They’ll bring “Undress the U.S.A.” (to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.”) about Newt Gingrich’s campaign, and “Hole in the Middle of the Plane” about Southwest Airlines objecting to new rules requiring airlines to refund baggage fees when they lose luggage. And the Steps don’t take aim at just easy, shooting-fish-in-a-barrel subjects. Their current show manages to find humor in even the decidedly un-funny news about the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Of course, Steps fans always look forward to the latest incarnation of “Lirty Dies,” the Steps’ trademark monologue, in which they “whip flurds” (flip words) to create hilarious spoonerisms such as “Imbos in the Boffice,” “Falicornia,” and the ever popular, and apparently ever timely, “Gorny Huys.”