The rescheduled ceremony was held over the course of a week.

By Roger Catlin
June 05, 2021 at 08:00 AM EDT
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Kennedy Center Honorees
43rd Annual Kennedy Center Honorees Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Dick Van Dyke, Garth Brooks, and Midori
| Credit: Michele Crowe/CBS

Canceled entirely in 2020 by the pandemic, this year's rescheduled Kennedy Center Honors sprang up like patches of wildflowers all over the campus of the storied Washington D.C. performing arts center. Typically, the ceremony is a prestigious single-night gala saluting its chosen roster of achievers — in this case Garth Brooks, Joan Baez, Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Allen, and Midori — before a black-tie crowd of luminaries, lawmakers and, until recent years, the President and First Lady.

But the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors was staged over the course of a week in late May with exuberant tribute performances given in hallways, on patio terraces, parking lots, rehearsal halls, reflecting pools, and empty stages — often seen only by camera crews. Together with a few live, distanced performances before greatly reduced audiences in the Concert Hall — and under an outdoor tent that looked like a midsized wedding reception — CBS managed to patch together a two-hour telecast, premiering Sunday on CBS. Hosted by previous honoree Gloria Estefan, the unusual production still manages to hit the emotional high points of past years.

That includes Garth Brooks' face mask dampening as his lifelong hero James Taylor ambled on stage to rework "The River," backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. (Brooks had paid his own tribute to Taylor, after whom he named a daughter, during the 2016 honors.) The behatted star similarly teared up through Kelly Clarkson's "The Dance" and Gladys Knight's concluding "We Shall Be Free." 

Meanwhile, Baez marveled at Sturgill Simpson's reworking of "House of the Rising Sun" from her 1960 debut album, with the symphony swelling behind him. She was also touched by her friends Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris singing a medley of her compositions "Diamonds and Rust" and "I Believe in God," before concluding with "We Shall Overcome," the anthem Baez sang steps away at the Lincoln Memorial during Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. Its revival under the tent provided one of those only-at-Kennedy-Honors moments, including a glimpse of Joe Manchin in the audience tepidly singing along (The senator would be much more spirited during Jimmie Allen's rendition of Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" later in the show.)

Other than a solo performance in the Hall of Nations by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the salutes to the violinist Midori by fellow virtuosos Gil Shaham, Adele Anthony, and Hilary Hahn, were entirely in the Concert Hall.

The tributes to Allen, heavy on her work in TV's Fame, included Anika Noni Rose in a rehearsal hall, and Vanessa Hudgens leading a team of dancers in the parking lot under blue skies. Dick Van Dyke's salute included Derek Hough leading another team of dancers on the rooftop terrace for "Step in Time" in a tribute so soaked in Mary Poppins it was introduced by Julie Andrews.

One drawback in having the big-name stars deliver their accolades alone in the center's hallways was the absence of eye-contact with — and reactions of — honorees who'd usually be in the same room. But there was no doubting the star power involved, with Bradley Cooper, Jason Aldean, and John Travolta paying homage to Brooks (with Wayne Gretzky on tape); and Jackson Browne, Phoebe Bridgers, and Tom Morello emphasizing what the latter called the "righteousness" of Baez' activism.

In addition to Andrews, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bryan Cranston, and Chita Rivera paid tribute to Van Dyke, with Steve Martin narrating a bio video. And Bette Midler, John Lithgow, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel were on hand to praise Midori. Still, there is no sense they were all there together at the same time, interacted with each other, or even saw the person they came to honor. 

And because the Opera House remained empty, so did its Presidential box. But President Joe Biden proved much more involved with the ceremony than his predecessor, who was the first in office to avoid the event entirely throughout his term. "Mr. President was so engaging and so open and spent a lot of time with us," Allen said at a press conference at the Opera House stage before the medallion ceremony (moved there from the State Department, whose offices remained closed).

"It turned out to be such a jolly romp," said Baez, who also got to sing in the Oval Office the spiritual that became a Civil Rights anthem, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."

Baez, who invited her friend Dr. Anthony Fauci to accompany her to the event's dinner, broke a couple of barriers at the event as well. While those feted usually sit in boxes far from the stage, she was close enough under the tent to rise and greet Carpenter and Harris after their performances. And, breaking the social barriers of the pandemic that wiped away a year, she could also touch their hands and hug.  

The 43rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Sunday, June 6, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. 

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