As a perennial event nearing its 40th anniversary, it takes a lot to make the Kennedy Center Honors seem newsworthy. Yet this year’s addition of new producers to replace founding patriarch George Stevens Jr. – amid some acrimony and ill feelings – coupled with President Obama’s address on terrorism that impacted his attendance managed to do just that. Throw in honoree George Lucas as his creation, “Star Wars,” swallows the pop-culture universe, and the always-stately telecast contains more urgency than usual, even if it’s clear the new stewards had no intention of reinventing the wheel.
Helpfully, this has to be one of the more commercially pleasing and diverse lineups of honorees in recent memory. In addition to Lucas – presented, surprisingly, during the first hour of the telecast – there are actresses Cicely Tyson and Rita Moreno, singer/songwriter Carole King, and conductor Seizi Ozawa. (The Eagles chose to defer their induction, but were recognized with a brief musical tribute.)
For the second consecutive year, CBS has used the showcase as a vehicle to promote Stephen Colbert, whose amiable persona is well suited to the abundant good tidings surrounding the ceremony. Yet in terms of seeking to invigorate a show that skews older strictly by virtue of the emeritus status enjoyed by most of its subjects, producers/Tony veterans Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss limited their tinkering to the cosmetic, with the best wrinkle being to work in snippets of President Obama’s lighthearted introductions of the honorees in advance of the main event.
After that, it was a pretty traditional Kennedy Center Honors, with the requisite mix of heartfelt (and occasionally teary-eyed) testimonials, such as “Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez adding to the CBS synergy (the network is a half-owner of the CW) by toasting EGOT Moreno (that is, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner), a prelude to a nifty rendition of “America” from her breakthrough performance in “West Side Story.”
The challenge remains how to recognize disciplines like acting or movies via these stage presentations, other than with praise from peers like (in the case of the 91-year-old Tyson) Tyler Perry, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington. A musical tribute to Lucas’ films – after a taped piece narrated by James Earl Jones (who else?) – rather neatly filled that void, but other elements, inevitably, didn’t work as well, such as having Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, join in the spoken tributes from the box in which her uncomfortable-looking husband was seated.
Of course, the nominees themselves often do much of the heavy lifting in making the show memorable, and that was certainly true with King, whose joy at having her life reenacted – through the Broadway show devoted to her songs, “Beautiful” – could hardly be contained. That culminated in a raucous, curtain-closing rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin, who can still shake the rafters even in a venue the size of the Kennedy Center.
Mostly, though, despite the changes and real-world distractions, the 38th edition bore a considerable resemblance to Kennedy Center Honors of Christmases past, including shots of the president and first lady grooving to the music, and the obligatory cutaway to CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. (Obama might be president, but it’s worth remembering who’s signing the checks here.)
The parting with Stevens was not only awkward but took on a tragic air when his son and collaborator, Michael, died earlier this year. Although one can appreciate the desire to bring new blood into the process, the “Kennedy Center Honors” derives its kick, in part, from how fastidiously old-school it is – a quality CBS has preserved by scheduling it during this low-risk window between Christmas and New Year’s.
As TV goes, to borrow one of King’s tunes, the special isn’t quite enough to make the earth move under your feet. Yet in its limited capacity as a joyous celebration of the arts – perhaps especially for those old enough to sing along – this remains a force to be reckoned with.