Guests didn’t bother counting stars at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, they were too busy counting galaxies.
By Kevin Chaffee
The evening’s somewhat surreal edge was evident even before the curtain went up. All eyes – and there were 1,900 pairs of them – were glued on President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as they joined fellow supernovas Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey in the box tier of the Opera House beside fellow honorees Bill T. Jones, Merle Haggard and Jerry Herman.
But that was only the beginning; far more extraordinary moments would follow as a who’s who of the entertainment world paraded across the stage or watched from the audience.
Actress Julia Roberts started the show with a personal tribute to old pal Winfrey and got the first big laugh of the night when she closed by saying, “Everybody reach under your seats … ” Sidney Poitier noted that there are 500 million friends on Facebook but the world’s most famous talk show host’s “gift of true friendship” was “exactly what a social network should be.” Chris Rock cracked up the crowd with jokes about Oprah’s power (“She got [President Obama] a job!”) and Oprah’s wealth (“She’s so rich China owes her money!,” followed by Barbara Walters, who called Winfrey “the best interviewer ever. No one else comes close – not even me.” Of course there had to be a song and Jennifer Hudson was there to sing it. The “Dreamgirls” star brought down the house with a powerful rendition of “I’m Here,” from “The Color Purple,” the film Winfrey starred in and later produced as a Broadway musical.
Actress Clare Danes praised choreographer/dancer Jones for “honesty, curiosity, fierceness and restless creativity” (and for being “a goofball who loves to get down”) just in time for the audience to get over playwright Edward Albee spoiling his own Jones tribute with gratuitous comments about the dearth of artists who are Republicans. (Later on, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein made nice by mentioning all those major GOP donors to the Center.) Dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company performed an impressive work titled: “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray” in their co-founder’s honor.
Angela Lansbury credited Herman for giving her the “chance of a lifetime” to star in “Mame” in 1966. “He understands romance,” she noted, adding that the famed composer/lyricist was “packing them in even now on the Great White Way” in a successful revival of “La Cage Aux Folles.” The extravaganza that followed produced what was undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the night: Carol Channing, age 89, singing “Hello, Jerry” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” on stage as eight lithe male dancers cavorted in her midst. Chita Rivera, Christine Baransky, Matthew Morrison, Laura Benanti, Kelsey Grammer, Sutton Foster and Christine Ebersole joined Channing and Lansbury (who is 85) onstage with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC to finish with a rollicking revue of Herman’s work.
Vince Gill credited Haggard, the “most resonant voice in country music,” as a “poet of the common man” concerned about “drifters, factory workers, farm hands and prisoners … who need a decent job, self respect and a place to call home.” Willie Nelson joined Sheryl Crow to perform Haggard’s classic “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Kris Kristoffersen, Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and Kid Rock joined them onstage to round out the musical segment in his honor.
It was no surprise that the evening’s grand finale was reserved for McCartney, whose career was lauded by Alec Baldwin (apparently they take yoga classes together in East Hampton). The actor’s droll commentary focused at first on the former Beatle’s “awful early years … assaulted by hostile female gang members” and having to perform in “places reserved for baseball games, bullfights and papal masses.” That McCartney is a “genius” was not forgotten, although Baldwin expanded the characterization beyond the realm of music to family, friends, and life in general.
The finale featured Gwen Stefani (wearing the highest and thinnest pair of stiletto heels ever seen outside of a circus) and her No Doubt band mates playing Beatles’ covers (“Hello Goodbye,” “All My Loving,” “Penny Lane”) and the unusual combination of Norah Jones and Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl collaborating on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The show-stopping finale came courtesy of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who ground out his own Fab Four medley in a variety of gravity- defying positions.
A lengthy audience sing-along with the assembled crew (also including Mavis Staples and The Joyce Garrett Choir) ended the night with “Hey Jude” and what seemed like each and every one of the “Na na na na” lines with a Washington political galaxy –the Obamas, Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden, Chief Justice John Roberts, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Colin Powell, half the Cabinet and a near majority of the Senate – joining in. And yes, some of them were even waving the little flashlights ushers handed out to create the “magical effect” of a starlit universe centered – for one night anyway – at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Abbey Road.