Lady Gaga, Usher, Bruce Springsteen & More Pay Tribute to 2014 Kennedy Center Honorees
“Tonight Washington puts the arts above politics. Because no matter what political party you belong to, everyone wants a selfie with Tom Hanks.” So declared host Stephen Colbert on Sunday night as he kicked off the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors, the ultimate power mash-up of arts, politics and business.
This year’s incarnation spotlighted Hanks, Rev. Al Green, Sting, Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride in a show heavy on laughs and music determined to get this beltway-insider audience -- which included the President, First Lady, and Secretary of State John Kerry -- on its feet.
For three hours the honorees, seated with the Obamas, were feted in turn by A-list talents, including Earth Wind and Fire, Jennifer Hudson, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Martin Short, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples and Usher -- all contagiously effusive in their respect and gratitude. Adding to the thrilling ambiance, the honorees didn't seem to know who would pay tribute to them until the performer took the stage. Stealth 2013 inductee Herbie Hancock, for one, refused to tip his hand on the red carpet that he was there for Sting. Nicely played.
It was also a night where Jane Fonda, Jane Lynch, Reba McEntire and SNL's Kate McKinnon rapped their love for Tomlin -- and where various Armed Forces musical troupes saluted Hanks as America’s Yankee Doodle boy in the night’s most elaborate number. Plus, the cast of The Last Ship, Sting’s Broadway musical for which he’s set to take the stage on Tuesday in the leading role, hoofed it down to D.C. after their matinee performance to surprise the former Police-man with a tribute. Did it all work? Just about.
Whereas last year’s show went a bit rogue with some of its pairings, this year’s event was pretty spot-on, which should translate into some solid holiday television on Dec. 30 when CBS airs it as a two-hour special.
Whoopi Goldberg introduced the Green tribute, declaring that nobody -- not even superfan POTUS -- can imitate the soulful, note-stretching crooner. And although no one even tried to take a swing at “Tired of Being Alone,” Green's tribute was a home run. Earth Wind and Fire delivered a high-octane “I Can’t Get Next To You” and “Love and Happiness," while Hudson -- who sang Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the 2013 inaugural ball -- commanded “Simply Beautiful.” Usher led a smooth turn on “Let’s Stay Together,” and spotlight-stealing Mavis Staples and Sam Moore duetted on “Take Me To the River,” backed by a massive choir.
Introduced by Meryl Streep, Sting’s tribute was the night’s rousing closer. Seated at the piano, Gaga stepped on the gas with a theatrical (perhaps a tad too theatrical) version of “If I Ever Lose My Faith,” which only rendered the next song, a pristine version of “Fragile” with Hancock on piano and Esperanza Spalding on bass and vocals, all the more pristine, bringing the house to a mid-performance standing ovation.
Sting helped induct Springsteen in 2009, and Springsteen returned the favor, making “I Hung My Head” his own in a distinctly Boss reading. Then Bruno Mars, who shared the stage with Sting for the 2013 Grammys tribute to Bob Marley, brought the crowd to its feet with a medley of Police tunes “So Lonely,” “Roxanne” and “Message In A Bottle,” all the while sounding uncannily like Sting himself before The Last Ship cast closed things out on a joyous note.
Midway through the show, founding producers George Stevens Jr. and son Michael Stevens took the stage to announce this would be their swan song, because Center chairman David Rubenstein wants to take the Honors in “a different direction.” Not sure what that means, but the Stevens’ are certainly going out on a high note.