Kennedy Center Honors 2019: Adam Lambert Belts Cher's 'Believe' & More Highlights

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Scott Suchman
The 2018 Kennedy Center Honorees, front row from left, Wayne Shorter, Cher, Reba McEntire and Philip Glass; back row from left, the co-creators of "Hamilton," Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire.

The Kennedy Center Honors span the entire arts spectrum, so it was pure serendipity that for the event's 41st year, each of the honorees hails from the world of music. Which meant an amped array of vocal and instrumental performances.

Perched in the balcony Sunday night (Dec. 2) overlooking a potent sea of entertainers and politicos (minus President Donald Trump, who shunned the ceremony for a second year) age-defying entertainer Cher, country sensation Reba McEntire, genre-bending composer and pianist Philip Glass, and jazz composer and saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter were saluted and serenaded by artists including Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum, St. Vincent, Brooks & Dunn, Paul Simon and Kristin Chenoweth.

In a first for the Honors, which previously has celebrated only people and not things, this year's incarnation also feted musical thunderbolt Hamilton with a special award. Creators Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire were all in the house donning the honorees' signature rainbow lanyards.

Original Broadway cast members from the 11-time Tony winning play Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Phillipa Soo soared in a rendition of "The Schuyler Sisters," which elicited a massive smile from Miranda, who then joined Christopher Jackson on stage to perform Washington-Hamilton cantata "One Last Time" to a standing ovation.

"As we've all been living with Hamilton in our art world, it really felt like we shouldn't wait to acknowledge how this work has transformed how we think about who's on stage, " said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. "We wanted to note this is a pivotal moment in our world of performing arts and we needed to create something new and different to acknowledge it."

Rutter said the Hamilton designation differs from the lifetime achievement awarded the other honorees and will not be an annual occurrence. "We'll only do it when there's a reason to do it, but it does give us an opportunity to think about it," she said. "Our arts world is changing. As we see these moments where you have a breakthrough, something really transformative happens, we should acknowledge that." 

In another new twist this year, 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan stepped in as emcee. She opened the show with anecdotes and words of praise for former President George H.W. Bush, who died Nov. 30.

In a show of his "Non Stop"-ness, Miranda acknowledged he was "sick as hell" on the carpet before curtain call—his week has included the L.A. premiere of Mary Poppins and getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—but was nevertheless effervescent over this unique commemoration of the multidisciplinary nature of the musical.

"With so many awards, suddenly you're in a race you didn't ask to be in against artist you admire enormously. It's like, 'Wait, why am I against Alan Menken in anything in the world? I love him,' "Miranda said. "This is a celebration of our collaboration and an acknowledgment that musicals don't happen alone, they don't happen in a vacuum. And I'm thrilled we get to celebrate a collaboration."

That the Honors are the antithesis of a competition is the event's most precious asset, one that's palpable in both subtle and dramatic exchanges that pass between the honorees and those feting them on stage.

This year's festivities had the latter moments in spades: When Clarkson, who's married to McEntire's stepson, thanked her for "being a rad grandma to our kids" and then pleaded, "Don't judge me," before delivering a version of McEntire hit "Fancy." When Whoopi Goldberg took the stage to honor Cher in a black sequin robe and deadpanned, "I went into your closet." When Cyndi Lauper stepped on stage to perform a show-stopping "If I Could Turn Back Time" and Cher screamed from the balcony, "I thought you said you were going to be in Los Angeles." Lauper shouted back, "I lied." Lauper then dueted with Adam Lambert on show closer, Sonny & Cher's classic "I Got You, Babe." Lambert also put his stamp on "Believe," and got a standing ovation from Cher upon sustaining a high note.

Cher, whose life story-inspired Broadway musical The Cher Show opens today (Dec. 3), seemed genuinely tickled to add this national honor to her treasure trove. "Meryl [Streep] told me once, 'You do things for the art and if the award comes, it's a bonus,'" she told Billboard. Still, the Academy Award winner never expected to be in this particular room. "I never thought I was the right person to win this award, because I'm just a little bit out there. I'm the girl who rode the cannon."

Little Big Town opened Cher's segment with a medley of "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves," "I Found Someone," and "Baby Don't Go," the latter a long time favorite of the band. "It was re-released as a duet by Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam," said the band's Phillip Sweet. "We would sing that as a band and jam out to it, so it's cool we get to do that tonight."

McEntire's portion also included a performance of her sassy 1994 hit "Why Haven't I Heard From You" by Brooks & Dunn, to whom McEntire gave their first gig in 1991, and with whom she shares the stage at their residency at Caesars Place in Las Vegas. The relationship is clearly more familial than friendship at this point, with the duo in on all of McEntire's little "secrets." "She's really a burnette," Kix Brooks quipped of McEntire's famous red mane. "If she were a blonde it would be easier to dye, but being a brunette, she's gotta go bleach first. It's a big deal."

Lady Antebellum was also in on the tribute. "She is just one of the most beloved entertainers in the world" said Lady A's Hillary Scott, who literally grew up with McEntire. Both of her parents were in McEntire's band, and her mother Linda Davis dueted on the song "Does He Love You." "More than anything, she's just treated everyone around her—family, the people she works with—like family. And I think that's the most respectable, amazing thing about her. And then the talent, on top of that, is off the charts."

For her part McEntire was thrilled to soak it all in. "This is a night I'm going to cherish. I'm taking every second in," she said before show time. "I've been here three times before to help induct other women so I'm looking forward to getting to sit up there and watch all of the show."

The immediately immersive musical world of Glass, whose scores for films including Kundun and The Hours have garnered numerous accolades and who recently completed his third symphony based on David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy of works, inspired Simon to declare, "embracing different musical styles is in Philip's DNA." And a mashup of styles flowed in his tributes from the likes of world music superstar/Glass collaborator Angelique Kidjo, pianist Jon Batiste and an ensemble featuring St. Vincent on electric guitar and Jennifer Koh on violin, which received an enthusiastic two-thumbs up from a delighted Glass.

"The arts are the face of America," Glass said on the carpet. "They're how Americans know who we are and how people from the other parts of the world know who we are."

The Shorter segment included a performance of "Aurora" by renowned opera singer Renee Fleming and a medley of his earlier work by an all-star band featuring vocalist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist Joe Lovano that included "Footprints," "Over Shadow Hill Way," "Joy Ryder," "Endangered Species" and "Elegant People."

Shorter, who's collaborated with everyone from Miles Davis to Joni Mitchell, said receiving this honor means "everything people who came before me have done was not done in vain." His work across genres has been a uniting thread throughout his career, and he told Billboard, "The one thing we have in common are our differences. The fences and gates and all that, they were never really there."

Maybe Shorter's sentiment echoed through the vaunted halls, or maybe there was just a little magic in the air. As the clock ticked close to midnight in the Center's grand foyer, newly reinstated House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) were seen sharing a laugh in the ballroom.

Kennedy Center Honors will air on CBS as a two-hour primetime special on Dec. 26.

Melinda Newman contributed to this article.


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