As usual, the Honors — part performing arts carnival, part hall-of-fame induction ceremony, part fundraiser and fancy-schmancy dinner — had a little something for its honorees and a lot for everyone else.
There were TV stars saluting a TV superstar (Letterman); exquisite dancing (in tribute to honoree Natalia Makarova); a great movie actor, Robert DeNiro, attesting to the chops of an acting icon (Hoffman); raucous blues (for Guy); and even raucous-er classic rock (for Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones).
President Obama, during pre-ceremony remarks at the White House, noted correctly that such an unlikely collection of artists “had no business being on the same stage together” and that his speechwriters had struggled to find a smooth transition from “ballet to Led Zeppelin.”
The ceremony itself featured the high, the low and quite a few things in between.
In honor of Makarova, who defected from the Soviet Union to the West in 1970, dancers performed pieces from her signature roles in “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Makarova, attired in red-and-black head scarf and gown, watched in apparent delight. She was, incidentally, overlooking the same stage on which she was badly injured in 1982 when she was hit by falling scenery equipment during a performance of “On Your Toes” (undaunted by a gashed head and broken shoulder blade, she made it to the Broadway opening of the show two months later — and won a Tony for her performance).
Morgan Freeman, introducing fellow Mississippian Guy, said the musician “mastered the soul of gutbucket” blues and created “a bridge from blues to rock ‘n’ roll.” Which was a pretty good segue for tribute performances by Tracy Chapman, guitar legend Jeff Beck (accompanying Beth Hart on a soulful “I’d Rather Go Blind”) and Bonnie Raitt. The massed performance of “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on the lower level of the house on their feet (the grownups in the mezzanine stayed seated).
Letterman, who has probably made more people laugh than just about anyone in human history, was lauded by Tina Fey, who explained that Letterman “began his career as a choreographer and black opera singer in the 1950s.” She called him a national treasure “like the Grand Canyon, the Chicago skyline or the top two Kardashians.” Letterman, among many others, laughed heartily.
Alec Baldwin did his own Top 10 list (“Top 10 Reasons David Letterman Is Getting a Kennedy Centers Honor”), which stiffed except for his veiled reference to Jay Leno (“No. 7: He didn’t leave late-night for a six-month stint in primetime”).
Jimmy Kimmel, a late-night heir of Letterman’s, noted that in high school, he started a David Letterman fan club, and this became “the reason I would fail to make love to a live woman for many, many years.”