Kickoff bash blends Hollywood, history

Barack Obama’s inauguration team announced a huge lineup of talent — assembled in less than two weeks — that will perform at an opening celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, in a kickoff heavy in its mix of history and leading artists.

The roster includes a cross-section of legends and luminaries: U2, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks, Shakira, John Mellencamp, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Usher, James Taylor, will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Heather Headley and Jennifer Nettles.

In addition, Jamie Foxx, Martin Luther King III, Queen Latifah and Denzel Washington will read historical passages, with the Rev. Gene Robinson delivering the invocation.

Called “We Are One: The Obama Inauguration Celebration,” the event will be shown exclusively on HBO, and is being produced by a team of heavy hitters: George Stevens Jr. is executive producer, Don Mischer is director-producer and Michael Stevens is writer-producer. Rob Mathes will be the music director and arranger for the backing band, which will support all the artists.

Stevens, executive producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, including last month’s ceremony, said they only started calling talent eight days ago, when they asked Springsteen, Bono and Brooks to perform.

“When you get three yesses of people of that stature, you know you are on a roll,” said Stevens, with a bit of amusement.

Stevens was an early supporter of Obama, and was among the Washington insiders who pressed the Illinois senator to run for president. Stevens, who ran the U.S. Information Agency’s Motion Picture division under Edward R. Murrow in the early 1960s and then served as founding director of the American Film Institute, has compared the incoming administration to that of John F. Kennedy.

During Obama’s campaign, he advised the candidate as co-chair, along with Broadway producer Margo Lion, of his National Arts Policy Committee. His son Michael has served as producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, American Film Institute tributes and the annual “Christmas in Washington” special.

Mischer, meanwhile, has produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 1996 Summer Olympics, as well as the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

George Stevens said the Lincoln Memorial event will be “rooted in history” and it is “not meant to be a glitzy performance.” The entertainment is designed to reflect themes that shaped Obama and his campaign and will be hallmarks of his administration.

Reference will be made to past presidents and signature accomplishments — Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt and the National Park Service, Franklin Roosevelt getting the country through the Great Depression — as well as of the memorial itself, as the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

As such, performers will sing selections that tie into the program’s themes. Stevens cited as an example U2 singing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which is about King and the civil-rights movement.

“That gives you a sense of how music fits in,” Stevens said. “There also will be pairings and trios. It will not be people singing their greatest hits.”

Stevens said Obama was “very approving of the thematic concept.”

“It’s going to be very entertaining, but it is about a country full of purpose.”

More talent is expected to be added in the coming days.

Often with very little time to prepare, Hollywood producers and talent will be fanned out throughout Washington in the coming weeks for the inaugural and related events, including more than four dozen official and unofficial inaugural balls. For example, Kevin Wall, who created and produced the Live Earth concerts in 2007 as part of Al Gore’s campaign to promote environmental awareness, was enlisted by the former vice president just two weeks ago to spearhead the entertainment at the Green Inaugural Ball at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday. The event is expected to draw 2,500 people and sold out within 12 minutes.

Among the host of challenges Wall faces are fitting so many different artists — expected to be announced in the coming days — into one program.

Said Wall: “We are playing in a security blanket, and in a building that is not used to hosting this type of event.”

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