While the current president became the first to avoid the event for two years running, the names of past chief executives kept arising at the 41st Kennedy Center Honors Sunday in Washington.
There was John F. Kennedy, in whose legacy the building stands. But host Gloria Estefan also recalled the kindnesses of George H. W. Bush, who died days earlier.
And then there was nation’s first president, on stage singing.
It was Christopher Jackson, reviving his original role as George Washington opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton in a performance for “One Last Time” from the hit Hamilton with the Voices of America Youth Choir.
Usually, aged honorees at the event get to sit back and blow kisses from a velvet red box seat and watch others try to replicate career highlights. But in this case, Miranda was not only the first honoree ever enlisted to also perform, but first to be inducted as part of a collaborative creative group.
“There’s no lone genius behind any musical, no matter what anyone tells you,” Miranda said on the red carpet. “It’s a thrill to be honored this way.”
He was among the four creators of Hamilton that also included director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director Alex Lacamoire (who backed the Washington-Hamilton exchange on piano). It was one of two performances from the blockbuster, with original members of the Schuyler Sisters, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, and Phillipa Soo combining on their signature number.
Largely lauding individual lifetime achievement, the only groups the KenCen Honors had previously awarded were assorted rock bands, from the Eagles to the Who and Led Zeppelin. But the success of Hamilton made these four rock stars of a type, just as it made Miranda, at 38, one of its youngest recipients.
Otherwise, this year’s event, to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS, had a dizzying shifts between high and low — bookended by long salutes to continuing casino fillers Reba McEntire and Cher, the evening was rounded out by arty compositions from jazz giant Wayne Shorter and the modern classical world’s Philip Glass.
The latter got an introduction from onetime collaborator Paul Simon and ringing chamber performances that included his quintet, an orchestra, and rocker St. Vincent on electric guitar on a piece from the soundtrack Mishima. “I’ve been obsessed with Philip Glass since I was 17,” she said on the red carpet.
Shorter got performances from his quintet, augmented by members of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and Esperanza Spading. Sixteen-year New York Yankee-turned-jazz guitarist Bernie Williams strode on to add some praise. And in the night’s artiest turn, a selection from Shorter’s comic book-inspired album featuring a full orchestra behind opera diva Renée Fleming took the stage to sing “Aurora,” a 2010 piece based on the writing of Maya Angelou.
The marquee female honorees both stood on the power of their single, four-letter given names, Reba and Cher — each boasting millions in sales, decades of performances, laudable personalities, TV success, and no end in sight.
It was McEntire’s costar on the six-season sitcom Reba, Melissa Peterman, who said a few words about the country star; Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” co-star Amanda Seyfried saluted Cher.
A survey of Reba’s country hits came from Lady Antebellum, first American Idol winner and semi-relative Kelly Clarkson (her husband is McEntire’s stepson), and her longtime friends and current Vegas openers Brooks & Dunn. The surprise was fellow Oklahoma native Kristin Chenoweth doing a number from Annie Get Your Gun, in which McEntire nailed on Broadway.
On the night before the big Broadway musical about her life, The Cher Show, was to open, there was no question who the climactic honoree would be.
“I never thought I was the right person to win this award,” Cher, 72, said on the red carpet. “Because I’m just a little bit out there.” Had the presidential critic shared the box with him instead of Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts, it might have been politically further out.
Whoopi Goldberg came in a glittery gown (“I went into your closet”) to say some words to the former Cherilyn Sarkisian, and another country group, Little Big Town, did a medley of early songs before onetime Cher tour opener Cyndi Lauper stomped all over “If I Could Turn Back Time” in knee-high boots and impossibly wild silver hair.
But it was another ex-American Idol, Adam Lambert, who provided a musical highpoint with a perfectly modulated “Believe,” backed by orchestra and without a need for vocoder.
It was rousing enough to have him joined by Lauper for the topper that served as a send-off, “I Got You Babe.”
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. on CBS.