Colbert & Letterman Add Laughs, George Stevens Jr. Adds Touch of Drama to Kennedy Center Honors

Colbert & Letterman Add Laughs, George
Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bolstered by an all-star lineup of talent, the 37th Kennedy Center Honors saluted five heroes of the performing arts Sunday: Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Sting, singer Al Green and ballerina Patricia McBride.

The glitzy gala had more drama than usual as George Stevens Jr. — creator of the annual awards that are a staple as a CBS year-end special and a major fundraiser for the KenCen — announced halfway through the ceremony that this year’s show would mark his last as producer, and he indicated that it was not by his choice. CBS will air highlights of the event on Dec. 30.

Meanwhile, KenCen Honors host Stephen Colbert and David Letterman had some fun with the crowd with a bit that was a wink to the fact that Colbert will succeed Letterman on CBS’ “The Late Show” next year. When Letterman, a 2012 KenCen honoree, came out to introduce the tribute segment to Hanks, Colbert snuck behind him and delivered a discreet “ahem.” To which Letterman replied: “Not yet.”

Colbert also played to the D.C. crowd by noting that the talent lineup for each year’s show is always closely guarded as “a secret known only to Kennedy Center executives and Edward Snowden.”The KenCen fete was attended by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and capped a weekend of festivities that included a White House reception and a private dinner at the U.S. State Department. It was again co-produced by George Stevens Jr. and son Michael with an emphasis on dynamic elements and surprise performers.

The evening opened with the salute to Green, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. A brief video synopsis of the singer’s life and career was followed by a medley of Green’s hits from Earth, Wind and Fire’s Ralph Johnson and Verdine White and others, with support from the Rob Mathias Band. Singer Jennifer Hudson offered a tender rendition of Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” and Usher dropped by to perform Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

The tribute to McBride, introduced by actress Christine Baranski, reprised her lengthy career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Her segment included a performance from “Fascinating Rhythm” by dancer Tiler Peck, who recently headlined the Kennedy Center’s world preem musical, “Little Dancer.” Other performers included dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Lauren Lovette and Misty Copeland, as well as the Charlotte (N.C.) Ballet, where McBride is currently associate artistic director.

Actor Hanks drew a colossal display of glitter and pomp from the Stevens duo. The talent lineup included the tribute from Letterman, a separate testimonial from Steven Spielberg, the a cappella group Pentatonix, and actor/comedian Martin Short. Short joined a rousing version of “That Thing You Do” from Hanks’ 1996 film, followed by a high wattage version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” featuring a large assortment of official choirs and bands from the U.S. armed forces.

The backdrop for Tomlin’s segment was the outsized rocking chair prop featured for her sassy little girl character Edith Ann. Tomlin’s love-fest included kind words from Garrison Keillor (who co-starred with Tomlin in 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) and Jane Fonda (with whom Tomlin will co-star next year in the Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie”). Others on hand included singer Reba McEntire and comedians Jane Lynch and Kate McKinnon.

The evening’s final tribute for entertainer Sting drew yet another impressive array of firepower. Following an opening from Meryl Streep, the Mathias Band let loose with an assortment of Sting faves. Participants included Lady Gaga (“If Ever I Lose My Faith in You”) and Bruce Springsteen (“I Hung My Head”). Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock also performed with young singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding. Show ended with a medley of Sting hits from the troupe that also included pop star Bruno Mars.

As always, the gala stands in stark contrast to the previous evening’s reception and dinner at the State Department for a select group of artists, politicos and supporters of the center. Surrounded by priceless heirlooms from the U.S. revolution, honorees are presented with their festive ribbons accompanied by formal toasts by other artists.

The dinner was hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, who reminded the audience of the vital importance of the arts, including its role as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. “No one misses the connection between artistic expression and freedom,” he reminded them. “It’s no coincidence that in the year before the Berlin Wall fell, in front of an East German audience of 300,000, Bruce Springsteen who is here tonight sang about the giants of freedom.”

Singling each honoree for mention, Kerry noted that “Tom Hanks earned a reputation through his many roles as a very nice guy – except when he broke my nose in a hockey game. Tom Hanks, I forgive you.” The remark, which referred to a mishap at a celebrity charity game in 2011, drew a loud guffaw from Hanks.

Opera singer Jessye Norman, a 1997 KenCen honoree, emceed the ceremony and the individual toastmasters.

Among other highlights, Dreamworks Animation Chair Mellody Hobson delivered her comments about hubby Lucas straight from her seat beside him in the president’s box — another first for the Honors production. Standing with her hand on his shoulder, Hobson reflected about the strengths of Lucas as husband and father.

Perhaps the wittiest line of the evening was deadpanned by President Obama during the pre-show reception at the White House for honorees and guests. Snippets from that event were sprinkled throughout the evening in video clips hastily inserted into the program. Gazing over at singers King and Franklin, the president said, “you make me feel like a natural woman — that’s probably the only time that line has been uttered by a U.S. President.” It brought down the house.

The rock group the Eagles had been initially selected to join this year’s honorees, but instead will be feted in 2016 because of health issues affecting band member Glenn Frey. They were remembered in style by country music singer Miranda Lambert, who delivered a soulful rendition of “Desperado.”