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Arts & Culture

A “Capitol Step” in the Right Direction

How a UMD Alum Co-founded Political Comedy Troupe

By Sala Levin ’10

Capitol Steps

Photo courtesy of Violet Crown Photo Works

Photo courtesy of Violet Crown Photo Works

If there’s one lesson to be learned from Elaina Newport’s professional trajectory, it’s this: Making fun of your boss could be a great career move.

A founding member of the Washington, D.C.-based musical comedy troupe the Capitol Steps, Newport ’79 began her working life in the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, organizing government oversight hearings. For the office’s 1981 holiday party, Newport played piano for a colleague who’d written some songs making fun of their bosses, other members of congress and then-President Reagan.

“We thought we would get fired or told to stop or both, but we didn’t,” Newport says. The higher-ups “invited us to perform for their next party, and the next party, and the next party. We’ve had a joke for many years—we wanted to do a traditional nativity play, but on Capitol Hill we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin.”

Newport and her satirizing colleagues, Jim Aidala and Bill Strauss, continued to work on Capitol Hill and do comedy on the side until 1988, when Newport says her boss and coworkers “started to notice that I wasn’t showing up much at the office because I was off making fun of the president and traveling the country.” Faced with choosing to make the budding troupe her full-time job or, she says, get fired, Newport went with the former.

“I did kind of run away and join the circus,” she says.

Although she always had a bit of the circus in her blood—as a kid, she borrowed her brother’s comedy records and copies of MAD magazine—Newport says, “If you ask any third grader what they want to be, they never say ‘political satirist.’” She even dropped the piano major she started because she “got practical.”

As it turned out, piano instruction and her eventual degree in institutional administration both proved practical for Newport. “Now I run this business and I also use my piano training,” she says. “Who would have thought that it’d all work out?”

For the last 30 years, the Capitol Steps—which has about 25 rotating performers—has performed regularly in D.C. and toured the country, singing pointed reworkings of popular songs that parody domestic and international political figures. The Steps have performed for five presidents and countless politicians, all of whom, Newport says, have been “good sports.”

These days, Newport performs infrequently, instead spending most of her time writing songs like “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea” and “Wake Me Up in Mar A Lago.” “You’re always looking for a good pun,” she says.

The constant churn of the recent political climate has kept Newport busy, even if “it’s almost too much because you don’t know what’s going to stick in the news.”

Despite the Capitol Steps’ love of mockery, Newport hopes that their brand of comedy reaches across political divides. “There’s a lot of partisan bickering, and we’re trying to make people laugh and get together a little bit,” she says.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.