WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a celebration of a broad spectrum of American music — from country and jazz to musical theater and modern minimalism — at the 41 annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday.
That’s when the nation’s capital paused from its political concerns to toast eight showbiz titans for excellence: Superstar multi-hyphenates Cher and Reba McEntire, along with composer/pianist Philip Glass, and jazz saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter. Tapped for a special honor was the creative quartet behind the musical “Hamilton” – writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire.
President Donald Trump declined to attend the event for the second straight year or host the traditional pre-gala reception for honorees at the White House. The decision, while breaking with longstanding tradition, was announced earlier and was met without visible dissent since Trump’s presence would have overshadowed the event, if not impacted it directly. Among those who did attend were U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
The polarizing effect of the Trump administration has shown no signs of abating since a number of 2017 honorees, including Norman Lear, made it clear they would not attend the KenCen’s traditional meet-and-greet events on Saturday and Sunday if President Trump were in attendance.
“If Trump were coming, I wouldn’t,” shouted an emphatic Cher upon arrival at an Honors event on Saturday night. “Someone would have had to give me the award in the bathroom or someplace,” she cracked.
The gala, to be broadcast by CBS on Dec. 26, was emceed by 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan. She paused briefly from her hosting duties to offer a touching tribute to former President George H. W. Bush, who died last week at age 94. She reminisced about a personal friendship with the nation’s 41st president and former first lady Barbara Bush, an experience echoed later in the show by Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein. The tribune to Bush, who attended the KenCen Honors throughout his presidency, received a standing ovation.
Once again produced by White Cherry Entertainment’s Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner, it was a graphically rich show that retained the traditional elements of surprise while omitting detailed film biographies of each honoree, a technique established by their predecessor, George Stevens Jr. and partners.
First up was the segment on McEntire, which included remarks by radio personality Bobby Bones and performances by daughter-in-law Kelly Clarkson, Kristin Chenoweth, and the duo Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. The tribute to jazz great Shorter followed with several numbers performed by a group that included 2013 honoree Herbie Hancock, bassist Esperanza Spalding and guitarist Bernie Williams. Soprano Renee Fleming stepped out to sing a rousing version of Shorter’s composition, “Aurora.”
The salute to the “Hamilton” team included video insights into the show’s unique creative process, performances by members of the original cast and in a first for the KenCen Honors, a performance by a same-year honoree. Miranda and actor Chris Jackson, who played Gorge Washington in the original cast, partnered on the number “One Last Time.”
The tribute to composer/performer Glass included numbers from his score of the 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi” performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Washington Chorus. Pianist Jon Batiste, bandleader for CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” played a solo from the composer’s chamber music composition, “Glassworks.” In addition, 2002 honoree Paul Simon stepped on stage to praise his colleague and reveal his own collaborative experiences with the artist.
The salute to Cher was saved for last and began with an introduction by pal Whoopi Goldberg. Before long, the crowd was on its feet as Cyndi Lauper delivered a rousing version of “If I Could Turn Back Time” and Little Big Town romped through “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”
The gala was again preceded by a more intimate event the previous evening at the U.S. State Department. It is there each year that honorees receive their festive ribbons following a reception and dinner for some 200 invited guests that include previous honorees, KenCen contributors, members of Congress, and invited family and guests of recipients. It was hosted by deputy secretary of state John J. Sullivan, a fill-in for secretary of state Michael Pompeo, who was attending the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires.
It is there that honorees first experience the full impact of the often-humbling occasion. “This is unbelievable. It hasn’t soaked in yet,” said McEntire, who has performed at previous KenCen galas and served as a member of the artists committee that helps select recipients. “It moves me beyond words.”
Ditto “Hamilton” music director Lacamoire. Surrounded by heirlooms of the nation’s founding fathers in the State Department’s ornate reception area, he said he was trying to “come to terms with being recognized in this way.”
The evening’s format includes brief testimonials of each recipient by an associate, informal remarks by each honoree and a ribbon ceremony administered by Rubenstein.
The remarks included a blend of sincerity and goofiness by comedian/actress Melissa Peterman, a sidekick on McEntire’s 2001-2007 comedy series “Reba.”
“Nancy Pelosi, where are you?” she inquired to the lawmaker seated in the audience. My book club would be so unhappy if I didn’t ask you to join. Just think about it!” She then reminisced about her six years playing Barbara Jean on the show while praising the honoree for her comedic instincts, versatile career and sterling character.
Cher was saluted by actress Amanda Seyfried, her co-star on this year’s movie comedy “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
“Cher speaks her mind with integrity and wears her heart on her sleeve,” Seyfried said. “Your light shines bright.”