WASHINGTON (AP) — Last year’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony was almost overshadowed by controversy surrounding the sitting president. This year’s event took place in the shadow of the death of a former commander-in-chief.
Sunday night’s ceremony honoring lifetime artistic achievement featured multiple tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday night at age 94.
The night kicked off with an extended standing ovation in Bush’s memory at the request of hostess Gloria Estefan.
“I think it’s appropriate to recognize the passing of a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service and who graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along and even shedding a tear from right up there in the presidential box,” said Estefan, who recalled being invited to the White House and how Bush “literally spent 45 minutes patiently talking to my eight-year-old son” about how the government worked.
Within days of that White House visit, Estefan’s tour bus was in a serious accident that left her nearly paralyzed and President Bush called her in the hospital, she said.
For the second straight year, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump declined an invitation to the awards. They returned to Washington before dawn Sunday from the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
The Trumps skipped last year’s ceremony after several of the honorees — most notably leftist television producer Norman Lear — threatened to boycott if he attended. This year, nobody issued that kind of overt threat, but the Trumps still announced three weeks ago that they wouldn’t attend.
David Rubenstein, the chairman of the board for the Kennedy Center, said after intermission that he often thinks about the values Bush brought to public service.
“I never met a more decent man, a more philanthropic person, a more genuine person,” Rubenstein said.
Bush attended the Kennedy Center Honors for most years during his presidency — and even afterward, during his son’s presidency — but like other leaders, he was pulled away by major issues that demanded his time. Bush didn’t attend in 1989 because he was at a summit in Malta. Jimmy Carter missed the 1979 awards because of the Iran hostage crisis. Bill Clinton was on his way to a conference during the 1994 Kennedy Center awards.
Trump, however, is the first president to miss them twice.
This year’s honorees for lifetime achievements in the arts were superstar singer Cher. composer Philip Glass, country music legend Reba McEntire and jazz icon Wayne Shorter, while an unprecedented special award went to the creators of “Hamilton” for their genre-bending musical.
The night kicked off with a salute to McEntire, who was introduced by music star Kelly Clarkson, who performed McEntire’s hit song “Fancy” after surprising her on the red carpet.
“Sometimes when we meet our heroes, it doesn’t always pan out,” Clarkson told McEntire, “but my friendship with you became one of the highlights of my life.”
Lady Antebellum performed “Is There Life Out There?” and “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” followed by Kristin Chenoweth performing a piece from Broadway’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and Brooks & Dunn performing “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?”
“This is a big deal,” McEntire told WTOP. “I helped induct Loretta [Lynn], Dolly [Parton], Lily Tomlin and Carol Burnett. I’m just glad to be part of the team. … This is a dream come true to be in the entertainment business and getting good attention. … I want them to remember me as a loving, giving person who loved to have a good time.”
Next, Shorter was hailed by the Kennedy Center for a six-decade career that included collaborations with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell.
Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock and Renee Fleming performed in tribute to Shorter, while Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, described Shorter’s music in celestial terms.
“His sound holds a special place in the galaxy,” Moran said. “I can safely say that somewhere in the galaxy right now, a band is playing one of his pieces.”
This year’s event also contained a break from tradition by honoring an actual contemporary work of art — the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” — in addition to lifetime achievement awards for late-career artists. Writer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire were honored as “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category.”
“I had a non-sober G-Chat from Mexico saying, ‘I’m watching Season 1 of ‘Mad Men’ on DVD and reading this really great book on Alexander Hamilton. I think there’s something here,” Miranda told WTOP on the red carpet.
Their return to D.C. was a full-circle moment, as Kail grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and Miranda first performed a number at a White House poetry jam in 2009.
“That moment is sort of a microcosm of our entire experience: I tell you the pitch for the musical, people laugh, then you get swept up in the story,” Miranda told WTOP.
“What if they had really biffed that performance?” Kail joked. “If you guys hadn’t nailed that, we’re definitely not here.”
After an intermission, Glass received his tribute from a fellow Kennedy Center Honors recipient: singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
“He can rightfully be described as one of our greatest modern composers,” Simon said.
Simon praised Glass for his eclectic body of work, “never settling into one particular style, always developing and exploring.”
Last but not least, comedian Whoopi Goldberg kicked off a tribute to Cher in a flowing sparkly gown that she joked came from the pop music icon’s closet.
“She is the true original,” Goldberg said. “She not only marched to the beat of her own drum — honey, she is a one-woman band!”
On the red carpet, Cher reflected on her Oscar-winning role in “Moonstruck” (1987).
“Norman [Jewison] came up and said do it twice because Nicki [Cage] wasn’t expecting it,” Cher told WTOP. “I slapped him really hard!”
She also described the challenges in trying to reinvent herself over the decades.
“I was dropped by my record company right before I did ‘Believe,'” Cher told WTOP. “My life has not been an easy one in my business, but I think if you persevere [you can make it]. I just don’t think giving up is a good idea.”
The evening ended with Adam Lambert performing his own rendition of “Believe,” followed by Cyndi Lauper, a longtime friend of Cher’s, performing “If I Could Turn Back Time.” The duo wrapped the show with a duet of “I Got You Babe,” made famous by Sonny and Cher.
The Honors tribute performers are always kept secret from the recipients, and this was no exception. When Lauper appeared, Cher yelled from her seat, “You told me you were going to Los Angeles!”
Lauper shrugged onstage and said, “I lied.”
WTOP's Jason Fraley recaps Kennedy Center Honors (Part 2)