WASHINGTON — Unveiling a variety of touches that broke from longstanding tradition, the Kennedy Center toasted five titans of the performing arts on Sunday in the 38th annual presentation of its Kennedy Center Honors. The careers of director George Lucas, actors Cecily Tyson and Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa and singer/songwriter Carole King were feted in a tight and fluid ceremony, which is slated to air Dec. 29 on CBS.
The first honors program under new the Kennedy Center’s new president Deborah Rutter coincided with a new production team, Tony Awards veterans Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment. The duo was tapped last May under a one-year tryout deal to succeed George Stevens Jr., who conceived the Honors program and co-produced from its inception through last year.
The gala celebration, as usual, drew a top shelf turnout of showbiz and D.C. glitterati, including President Obama, who arrived at intermission after delivering his primetime address to the nation from the Oval Office on terrorism. Sunday’s gala capped a busy weekend of festivities for the honorees.
The new production team sought to maintain certain elements of the program while seizing opportunities to freshen up others. For example, honorees remained seated in the presidential box at the center’s Opera House and did not participate, two longstanding traditions. But the team sprinkled new video segments throughout the show to supplement biographical films of each honoree, changed the look of sets and clearly aimed for a breezier flow of proceedings.
Emceed for the second year by Stephen Colbert, the show began with a toast to Moreno that included a lively perf of “America” from “West Side Story” and ended with Aretha Franklin delivering a rousing rendition of King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
The King tribute was hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time friend and neighbor of the artist. It wove in scenes and songs from the King bio tuner “Beautiful” performed by Chilina Kennedy, supplemented by James Taylor (“Up on the Roof”), Sara Bareilles (“You’ve Got a Friend”) and Franklin. An exuberant King could barely contain herself from her box seat, especially during Franklin’s number.
The Ozawa segment, presented by Itzhak Perlman, included a testimonial from singer Renee Fleming and a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The toast to director Lucas was the evening’s most elaborate segment. Emceed by Usher, it included appearances by Carrie Fisher (by “video voicemail”), as well as former honorees Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. James Earl Jones narrated the biographical film for Lucas as well as a shorter video clip that highlighted Lucas’ many technological achievements in film. It ended with a laser-filled tribute to “Star Wars” that plowed new ground for the Honors event.
The segment for Tyson offered the evening’s most touching moments. Hosted by Tyler Perry, it saluted Tyson’s numerous film, TV and stage performances. Participants included actress Viola Davis and Kerry Washington and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who performed a version of “My Funny Valentine” in the style played by Tyson’s former husband, Miles Davis.
In his remarks to the gathering, Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein issued special praise to former producer Stevens, who conceived the Honors program. He said the evening’s show continues to fulfill Stevens’ legacy.
The KenCen gala was again preceded the previous evening by an intimate gathering at the U.S. State Department hosted by Kerry. Honorees were presented with their rainbow ribbons, surrounded by invited members of the artists committee and some past honorees, Kennedy Center board members, a smattering of D.C. politicos and media celebs.
Kerry, taking a quick break from Paris global warming talks, said he welcomed the reception and dinner as “Washington’s true politics-free zone.” But he set a serious tone by decrying the brutal war being waged by ISIS terrorists against culture, art and world peace.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock emceed the post-dinner festivities which featured tributes to each honoree by a special friend. “Scandal” star Washington saluted Tyson, followed by the toast to Lucas by Usher. Former Perlman lauded colleague Ozawa, followed by an especially heartfelt testimonial to Moreno by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
King’s tribute was delivered by longtime colleague Taylor, who said that when he first released King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” he never dreamed the tune would be “my first and last number one single, and a song I would sing every night for the rest of my entire life.”
Pictured: Rita Morena, George Lucas (standing), Seiji Ozawa, Carole King, Cicely Tyson