Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Sesame Street received high praise during the annual awards ceremony.

By Roger Catlin
December 09, 2019 at 11:51 AM EST
John P.Filo/CBS

Not much unites Washington, D.C, these days. But Sunday night, when John Legend, the Jonas Brothers, Ne-Yo, and Cynthia Erivo combined to perform Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” to cap the 42nd Kennedy Center Honors, it got a crowd that included both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on its feet and grooving.

For the third time, President Donald Trump skipped the gala ceremony many of his predecessors had gladly attended. Yet, his absence may have been a blessing at an event where Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, Sesame Street, and classical music’s Michael Tilson Thomas were honored along with Earth, Wind & Fire.

Had he attended, “I wouldn’t have come,” Field, 73, said on the red carpet. Even so, she said “I think we all feel this is the big one,” of the honor. “It’s the pinnacle.”

Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Pierce Brosnan, and Maura Tierney each read testimonials to Field having worked with her in Forrest Gump, Lincoln, Mrs. Doubtfire and ER respectively.

But in the tradition of the event, the honorees were left to nod, wave and receive ovations from their box seats, as they did not speak. Their comments at a State Department reception the night before were replayed at the event, however — except for those by Ronstadt, who had famously answered Pompeo’s glib song-title referencing question “When will I be loved?” with “When he stops enabling Donald Trump.”

The comment got sustained applause at the dinner. But at the event Sunday (where Pelosi was alone among officials to get a standing ovation) host and former honoree LL Cool J noted, it was more about healing.

Scott Suchman

Most of the night’s stirring moments were musical, as when Carrie Underwood tackled “Blue Bayou” in honor of Ronstadt, backed by a string arrangement that brought to mind the honoree’s work with Nelson Riddle, before kicking into a higher gear with “When Will I Be Loved.”

Grammy-winning female mariachi Flor De Toloache paid homage to Ronstadt’s Spanish language Canciones de Mi Padre. And a black-clad Trisha Yearwood handled “You’re No Good” before joining Aaron Neville to revive the tender 1989 hit, “Don’t Know Much.”

Don Henley and Emmylou Harris joined to pay tribute to Ronstadt, but didn’t perform. Harris hailed her “uncompromising integrity” and called her “a fearless artist who set the bar high for all of us.”

The Sesame Street salute was bittersweet, beginning with a bit with Big Bird squabbling with Hanks in the audience on the day that the puppet’s originator, Caroll Spinney, had died at 85. He had given up operating the rigorous puppet just last year. Many of the show’s puppeteers wore a yellow feather in their lapel in Spinney’s memory, and Kennedy Center board chair David Rubinstein said “the tribute tonight is in his honor.”

Otherwise, things were pretty cheery in the segment honoring the show’s originators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, with a raft of Muppets joined by Cedric the Entertainer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and country star Thomas Rhett, who led an ensemble version of “Sing.”

Scott Suchman

Sesame Street also managed to get the closest thing to presidential attention as former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote the tribute in the evening’s glossy program, saying, “I can think of no television show more worthy of becoming the first in history to become a Kennedy Center Honoree.”

The biggest surprise musically may have been Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, on stage to salute San Francisco Symphony Conductor Tilson Thomas, returning briefly to play the drums in a version of “I’ve Got Rhythm” that included Audra McDonald, classical pianist Yuja Wang and a New World Symphony Alumni Orchestra, from the group TIlson Thomas began in Miami.

Ulrich explained his presence by noting Metallica’s recent collaboration with the conductor in a symphonic performance in September. Tilson Thomas’ personal relationships with composers from Igor Stravinsky to Leonard Bernstein meant a fiery excerpt from the former’s “The Firebird,” and McDonald singing a medley of the latter’s poignant “Some Other Time” and “Somewhere.”

Earth, Wind & Fire, the first African-American group to be Kennedy Center honorees, “changed music and enriched the lives of generations to come,” said songwriter-producer David Foster, whose first big songwriting score came when EWF recorded his “After the Love Has Gone.”

To pay tribute, a dashing John Legend sang “Can’t Hide Love” before Erivo, the Tony-winning star of The Color Purple and a Golden Globe nominee for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in Harriet, took over with “Fantasy” and a soaring rendition of “Reasons.” The crowd was on its feet for Ne-Yo’s takes on “Shining Star” and “Sing a Song,” as well as for the Jonas Brothers’ celebratory “Boogie Wonderland” before the big “September” finale erased any lingering political division, if only fleetingly.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS Sunday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET.

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