When lasers shoot across the storied opera house at Washington’s cultural arts center, you know it’s the dawning of a new era for the Kennedy Center Honors.
The Honors have always been a Venn diagram of artistic, entertainment and political spheres. Last night’s 38th edition, which honored singer/songwriter Carole King, director/producer George Lucas, actress/singer Rita Moreno, actress Cicely Tyson and conductor Seiji Ozawa, tilted strongly to the Hollywood camp. This should bode well when CBS broadcasts the Dec. 6 event on Dec. 29.
Under new direction by Tony Awards veterans Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry in the first changing of the guard since George Stevens Jr. created the Honors in 1978, the sets were livelier, hues brighter, speeches shorter and videoclips in abundance.
Of course, there were reminders of the A-list attendees gathered in nation’s capital. Most saliently, President Obama arrived post-intermission, after he delivered a televised address from the White House in response to last week’s terrorist attack in California.
On a lighter note, Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped induct King, joked he would be a huge fan even if she hadn’t helped pay off his campaign debt. And host Stephen Colbert, back for his second year, opened by acknowledging all the attendees, including “the small handful of you who aren’t running for president.”
The tribute to Moreno, one of only eight living performers who’ve won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, featured an emotional love letter from Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez and a lively performance by Rosie Perez, who re-created Moreno’s Emmy-winning take on “Fever” backed by The Muppets’ Animal on drums.
Ozawa, who served as music director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 seasons, received a video tribute narrated by composer John Williams, accolades from opera singer Renee Fleming and a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who told Billboard pre-show, “Seiji has been a great role model to so many musicians in that he cares so much about young people. He gave me so many chances to start teaching, and I’m forever grateful.”
The new format really kicked in for the Lucas tribute. Carrie Fisher appeared via “video email” projected by R2-D2 in a throwback to the 1977 original film, C-3P0 and a gaggle of stormtroopers took the stage, and an orchestral rendition of the Star Wars‘ theme was set to film clips. Then came those crowd-pleasing lasers
Longtime colleagues Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese also took the stage, the latter noting Lucas’ love of music, saying, “The music in his pictures becomes another character.” As for his latest musical inspirations, Lucas told Billboard, “I’m not thinking about my next project. I’m raising my 2-year-old daughter, so I’m hearing a lot of children’s songs.” As for The Force Awakens, he said, “I think the fans are going to love it.”
Tyson received praise from Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Tyler Perry before CeCe Winans took the stage with the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing Arts for an inspired version of “Blessed Assurance.”
“She has paved the way for so many women of color, but also what she stands for is awesome for our nation,” Winans told Billboard. “We need to come together, unite, love one another and appreciate each other.” Winans’ next album, due next year, includes “some things the world needs to hear,” she said. “I have one song called ‘Peace from God.'”
Introduced by Kerry — who noted, “We fought to the music of the Doors, the Stones and the Dead, but we healed with the music of Carole King” — the night’s final tribute featured the cast of King’s Broadway musical Beautiful feting a career in which she penned dozens of hit songs.
Musical tributes to King were impeccable. Janelle Monae effortlessly soared as a Shirelles-era chanteuse on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day”; musical soul mate James Taylor offered a pristine “Up On The Roof”; and Sara Bareilles delivered a stirring “You’ve Got A Friend.” In what was clearly a surprise to King, the show closed when Aretha Franklin stepped out to bring down the house with “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” Perfection.
Although the Eagles had to reschedule their Honors appearance until next year due to Glenn Frey’s health problems, the show included a teaser of sorts with Miranda Lambert singing the band’s “Desperado.” Her performance was pitch-perfect and entertaining — no doubt the reason for its inclusion a year ahead of time.