Borscht beltway

 Capitol Steps cast members with director Brad Van Grack, center.  Photo courtesy of Capitol Steps
Capitol Steps cast members with director Brad Van Grack, center.  Photo courtesy of Capitol Steps

The Capitol Steps have been poking fun at our nation’s politicians here in the Washington, D.C., region and around the country for 34 years – or in political terms that’s 17 congressional election cycles and 13 presidential campaigns.

The group, which started on a lark in 1981 when a trio of congressional staffers from  then-Sen. Charles Percy’s office organized a series of song parodies and skits for the annual Christmas party, featuring a particularly pointed brand of satirical humor, is now an institution. Those founders – Elaina Newport, Jim Aidala, and the late Bill Strauss – went on to form what is now one of Congress’s longer running institutions – aside, that is, from outgoing Maryland Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

These days the Steps, as they are fondly known, feature more professionally trained performers and fewer moonlighting congressional staffers – though Newport remains a chief contributor to the Steps political satire, said director Brad Van Grack. And with more than 20 performers on the roster, the Steps can be in four or five places at once.

“They must have been good,” Van Grack said about that first performance. “They didn’t get fired. The first year they had shows here and there and then it snowballed and received a lot of media attention.”

These days the Capitol Steps perform more than 300 shows a year and have gigged in every state in the country – North Dakota, Van Grack believes, was the final holdout. At home in Washington, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center – aptly named since the Steps came into being during the Reagan Administration – the group takes to the stage every Friday and Saturday evening with an ever-evolving show that parodies and pokes fun at the President, the Cabinet, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and even our vaunted Supremes – the black-robed Supreme Court justices, and, of course, foreign heads of state also get a ribbing. On a recent weekend it was a Netanyahu and Abbas face off that garnered some laughs, along with a Castro impression.

Van Grack joined the group about 23 years ago, and although he came from a professional acting background not a congressional acting background, he has been at the helm of the group’s singular brand of bipartisan humor, contributing songs, sketches and a bit called Lirty Dies, which is a style of Spoonerism or double-talk that reverses first letters of adjacent words. It can make the most innocuous statement sound risque, inducing giggles and laughs all around.

To keep up with the constant news cycle, Van Grack said he reads multiple newspapers hitting major big city publications like the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian. He also follows the late night comedians and the recent “fake” news shows – which have changed the way the under-30 set digests its news stories. “We’ve been doing this since way before Jon Stewart,” Van Grack pointed out.

Writing for the Steps takes a nimble and inquisitive mind and a wicked sense of humor, along with an ability to come up with obscure rhymes – what rhymes with Sotomayor, or Scalia, for example. Songs and sketches rotate in and out of the show based on the what’s on the front page of the Post. Fall election years are the busiest, particularly when a presidential campaign is in full swing, but any news item, Van Grack pointed out, can have legs.

“I remember a little Lorena Bobbitt story,” Van Grack said about a 1993 incident when Bobbitt, in an act of rage as a scorned wife sliced off and discarded her then-husband’s penis. “It was a little story blurb on the inside of the Metro section. I wondered who was going to pick up on it.” A few days later late night comics like Leno and Letterman mentioned it and got laughs. “So we knew that that story had legs …  But you never know what’s going to happen and I thought some weird stories would be bigger … but that doesn’t always happen.”

Van Grack, who grew up the lone non-lawyer in a family of lawyers and legal booksellers, still lives in Silver Spring. He attended Kaufmann Camp as a kid and was bar mitzvahed at Temple Shalom. He estimates that between five and ten percent of the private bookings the Steps gets are for Jewish audiences – synagogue fundraisers, Hadassah groups and other Jewish organizations of all stripes, not to mention the current two-week tour in West Palm Beach. He and the cast will throw in a few more pointed references to New York, a few Yiddishisms and there’s invariably a song or skit on the Middle East; whether its Arafat or Abbas, Begin or Netanyahu, the region is always a hotbed of comic

“I had a great song to the Fred Astaire tune, ‘Heaven,’ where a rabbi comes out and sings: ‘I want to go skydiving or to poke a shark in a tank, but there’s nothing that thrills me half as much as living on the West Bank/I’m in Hebron/I’m in Hebron/where we built 6,000 houses just last week/and it tends to make Yasser kind of freak/when we’re out in Hebron living sheik to sheik,’” Van Grack said.

Marc Irwin came to Baltimore for his PhD in music from Peabody Conservatory (now of The Johns Hopkins University) and joined the Steps in 1999 following multiple affiliations with Broadway shows as a musician, conductor, keyboardist and music director. The appeal of the Steps was the steady work with occasional travel, but enough time so that he could also focus on his own creative projects.

A Brooklyn native, the pianist still carries his New York accent proudly. Why so many Jews in show business? Irwin supposes it has something to do with the fact that almost every Jewish household he knew growing up had a piano in the living room and all his friends had music lessons. His own high school, Tilden in Brooklyn, had multiple music ensembles, bands and singing groups where he cut his teeth doing orchestrations or playing weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“The Jewish contribution to the entertainment industry,” said Van Grack, “has been incredible — from the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis to Danny Kaye to countless writers and the whole musical theater from Jule Styne, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Oscar Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim. I think … to succeed you have to be smart and you’ve got to be canny to survive. I think that we as a religious people also want to make order out of chaos. It’s in the Marx Brothers and Larry Gelbart’s MASH, for example. If we can’t make order out of this chaos, then let’s just joke about it and make fun of it. That sets us above it and keeps us from collapsing in tears … That viewpoint is healthy and it keeps you sane.” After all, the only business crazier than show business has got to be politics.

Capitol Steps perform Sunday, March 15, 7:30 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation’s annual gala. Visit­/capitol-steps for information. The Steps perform every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. year-round at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington. Visit for tickets or information.

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