WASHINGTON, D.C. — To the delight of a standing-room-only audience that included the First Family, the Kennedy Center Honors paid hearty tribute on Sunday night to actor-singer Bette Midler, opera bass-baritone Justino Diaz, Motown founder Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” honcho Lorne Michaels and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
The event, last staged before a live audience in pre-COVID 2020, had been conspicuously ignored by former President Donald Trump following criticism from two honorees in 2017. By contrast, President Joe Biden happily reinstated the tradition of hosting honorees at the White House before attending the production. He and First Lady Jill Biden were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Douglas Emhoff.
The wait by audiences was fully rewarded as the 44-year-old Honors program delivered a seemingly nonstop parade of A-list participants offering heartfelt tributes and rousing entertainment for the honorees gazing down from the president’s box. The show will air Dec. 22 on CBS.
“It’s great to see the President’s box occupied once again — and the same with the Oval Office,” said host David Letterman at the outset, a remark that drew sustained applause from a packed house that included VIPs of every political and showbiz stripe.
This year’s production also caps the 50th anniversary year of the D.C. arts facility, which is emerging from its COVID-related shutdown with a full schedule of live productions under strict masking and vaccination protocols. “We’re back,” said a triumphant Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein in welcome remarks to the audience midway through the four-hour production filled with countless highlights.
Rubenstein solicited a bow from the show’s producers, White Cherry Entertainment’s Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, and paid homage to its original team of George Stevens Jr. and the late Nick Vanoff.
The evening included countless highlights, beginning with cellist and former honoree Yo-Yo Ma’s moving rendition of the national anthem.
It opened with a focus on honoree Mitchell and her profound impact on American culture with iconic albums like “Blue.” “Her intimacy broke conventions,” said filmmaker Cameron Crowe. Actor Dan Levy cited the Mitchell’s gifts for “capturing who we are” via touching songs that move people to love and to think. Mitchell’s bout with childhood polio was also cited during the expansive set.
The tribute included performances by singers Norah Jones, Ellie Goulding and Brandi Carlile, who each took the spotlight for faves including “The Circle Game,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “River.” Brittany Howard and previous honoree Herbie Hancock sang “Both Sides Now,” a song included in Hancock’s Grammy-winning album “River: The Joni Letters.”
The tribute to opera superstar Diaz was especially appropriate for the Center’s 50th anniversary, since the bass-baritone enjoys deep roots in D.C. He participated in the 1971 inauguration of the Center as a young member of the city’s opera company, originating the role of Francesco in the world premiere of “Beatrix Cenci” by composer Alberto Ginastera. The work was commissioned by the center for the occasion. He has since made numerous appearances with the company.
Former honoree Chita Rivera cited her colleague’s profound impact on opera, describing his voice as “an incomparable instrument.” Grace Bumbry, a 2009 honoree, reminisced about sharing stages with Diaz at the Metropolitan Opera and cited his iconic roles that include some 200 performances as Escamillo, the bullfighter in “Carmen.”
An elaborate set included singers Christian Van Horn and Denyce Graves performing scenes from “Carmen,” “Ave Maria” from “Otello” and final scene from “Faust.” Others in the segment included Ariana Wehr, Hannah Shea, Ana María Martinez, Matthew Polenzani, and Diaz’s two daughters, Natascia and Katya.
The segment for producer Michaels drew nonstop laughter for a parade of “SNL” veterans assembled to roast their former boss with revised “Weekend Update” segments. Included were Steve Martin, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Seth Meyers, Kevin Nealon, Pete Davidson, Amy Poehler, Kenan Thompson, Jimmy Fallon, Michael Che and Colin Jost. Singer Paul Simon ended the set with the tune “Look for America.”
As with the others, the segment included a video replay of remarks from President Biden uttered earlier at the White House reception. “He’s trying out seven men to play me!” Biden lamented at the occasion, replayed for the audience.
The segment for Midler reviewed the actor’s remarkable career from a Chicago bath house to film and Broadway, including her landmark appearance on Johnny Carson’s final “Tonight Show.” Goldie Hawn stepped out to help reprise Midler’s 50-plus years as a versatile entertainer, as did Scarlett Johansson. Melissa Manchester reminisced about a longstanding friendship that began with a chance encounter when the two artists were appearing in separate Chicago clubs.
Beanie Feldstein, Kate Baldwin and Taylor Trensch — fellow cast members from Midler’s 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” — joined in singing “You Gotta Have Friends,” and Kelli O’Hara offered “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The set included “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Love Is on the Way” and “From a Distance” with help from Manchester, Billy Porter, Rachelle Rak, Christiani Pitts and Étienne Lashley.
The final tribute to Gordy was equally star-studded, with appearances from Smokey Robinson (singing “Did You Know”) and Stevie Wonder (“Higher Ground”). Robinson delivered a tender reprise of his career that began at age 17 when Gordy entered his life and emphatically shaped it with the song “Shop Around.” He noted that countless others enjoyed the same fatherly stewardship.
Also included were the Broadway cast of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” offering songs including “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” The finale, getting the audience to its feet, was a rousing “Higher Ground,” featuring Wonder along with Howard, Porter, Andra Day and Goulding.