The Honors, Take 2
Putting the Kennedy Center Show on Stage, and Then TV, Is Quite a Production

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"You come to realize it's really two different shows."

The speaker is George Stevens Jr., and the two different shows are both called the Kennedy Center Honors. The first of the two is in early December: a black-tie gala in the Opera House, staged for a grand assortment of the nation's powerful, prosperous and accomplished. The second, and far more democratic, is the annual television presentation on CBS. (This year's edition, a salute to Tony Bennett, Suzanne Farrell, Julie Harris, Robert Redford and Tina Turner, airs tonight at 9 on Channel 9).

The requirements of the two can be very different, and Stevens, 73, knows only too well that there are -- almost -- no retakes. However:

"We decided at the beginning that we wanted this to be a show for the audience in the Kennedy Center," he says firmly. And he was there at the beginning -- he's produced the event since its inception in 1978.

There's a reason for that decision -- the people in the 2,300-member audience are paying as much as $6,250 for a prime seat. (The second balcony can be had for a mere $200, and there are long waiting lists for that.) But pulling off the evening calls for intricate planning and hairpin execution by Stevens and his production team. Yes, they're always striving to keep the live audience happy, but they cannot ever forget the TV special, which is crucial not just to the Honors but also to the center itself.

"If you go back in history, the Honors are what created a national profile for the center, and they have continued to do so," says the center's president, Michael Kaiser.

Besides that, there's a lot of money on the line at the Honors. The CBS contract pays for the production -- "It's an expensive evening," Kaiser says. "And almost 10 percent of our contributed funds come from the Honors. I'm talking about net contributed funds from ticket sales, which go to educational programming."

Although it airs the show in late December -- a traditionally low-viewing period that is heavy on reruns -- the network obviously still wants the show to get the best ratings it can. (Over the past five years, the audience has ranged from 7 million to 11 million; last year, 8.5 million tuned in.) There has been speculation that the push for ratings has resulted in pressure on the Honors selection committee to choose sexy honorees.

Stevens, though, denies that. "CBS -- when I say they have been a good partner, there's not been a single occasion in the entire history of this where they have said, 'Put somebody on the show' or 'Don't put somebody on the show,' " he says.

(The selection process is shrouded in secrecy, although certain criteria seem apparent: a mix of artistic disciplines, the inclusion of men and women, minority recognition. Stevens says the committee almost always gets the people it wants. "I can only think of Vladimir Horowitz, whose condition for doing it was that we do it at 4 in the afternoon . . . and that he be honored alone. And other than that, he would be happy to do it. And the other was Hepburn." Katharine Hepburn declined the Honors' first offer and then relented in 1990. Horowitz, who died in 1989, was never honored.)

Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, attends the Honors each year. "It's one of the shows that I am most proud of putting on our network," he says. "Sometimes the ratings aren't spectacular, but we don't expect them to be. . . . It is our intention to cover the Honors for as long as they're on the air."

That will no doubt warm hearts at the Kennedy Center, but Stevens knows he has a standard to live up to. The three months or so between the announcement of the honorees and the Big Night mark what can be a harried stretch on his calendar. Still, his manner suggests he's feeling no heat.

After all, the only task ahead for him and his team is to produce those two large, different and simultaneous shows without a serious hitch. But then, they've done it 27 times before.

Putting It Together

Much of Stevens's life work has involved saluting and safeguarding our artistic heritage. He was founding director of the American Film Institute nearly four decades ago; in 1977, that organization held a 10th-anniversary observance that included a White House reception and an evening program at the Kennedy Center. The next day, he stopped by the office of Roger Stevens, the center's founding chairman, to thank him for his help.

"I said, 'You know, you really ought to have your own event for the Kennedy Center.' He said, 'Got any ideas?' . . . I don't know whether it was in that conversation or I came back and said, 'You ought to honor the great figures in the performing arts.' And he liked the idea, and we got Isaac Stern involved . . . and we went to CBS and told them about it -- pitched it, they like to say. And CBS bought it."

(When he mentions Roger Stevens, George Stevens Jr. is quick to add, "No relation." But he has an equally illustrious forebear -- the great movie director George Stevens, winner of two Oscars and the maker of such classics as "Woman of the Year," "A Place in the Sun," "Shane" and "Giant." Wall space in Stevens's oblong third-floor office at the Kennedy Center is about equally divided between his own memorabilia and that of his late father.)

George Stevens Jr.'s major credits commence with an associate producer's job on "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), which his father directed. For the past three years, he's hired his producer son, Michael, 39, to put together musical segments for the Honors.

This year, the Stevenses are particularly excited about the Turner segment; even a month before the show, it seemed inevitable that Turner would be given the final spot on the program, which tends to go to the honoree with the highest wattage.

During an early interview, Michael Stevens calls from Los Angeles, where he lives, to give a rundown on the Turner plan.

The minute an honoree is named, he says, the question he asks is: Who is the obvious anchor for the segment? It could be a speaker or a performer, but the criterion is star power. In Turner's case, he says, the answer was Oprah Winfrey. And Winfrey, a close friend and longtime admirer of Turner's, said yes.

"Oprah was for us a very early key to the segment -- its center," he says.

The second question he asks is, who is not available? He made a list of his "absolute first choices" to perform the musical numbers.

"We want to get our no's early," Michael Stevens says. "We don't want to kid ourselves."

In Turner's case, their options were numerous, and their final lineup -- Queen Latifah, Melissa Etheridge, Beyonce Knowles and Al Green -- is clearly a source of satisfaction.

Pacing and drama are major considerations. George Stevens is particularly pleased that Turner's segment begins with Queen Latifah performing "What's Love Got to Do With It?" He's expecting a powerhouse performance, but is also thinking the audience will feel a sense of "God, do you have anywhere to go from that?"

With a medley by Etheridge, Beyonce taking "Proud Mary" and Green singing "Let's Stay Together" all to come, he's confident that the answer is yes.

The elder Stevens repeatedly emphasizes the logistical challenges presented by the show.

"If you were doing this in New York," he says, "you'd be going across the street to talk to so-and-so, or if you were doing it in Los Angeles -- and a lot of the crew would be there, one place or the other. Here -- everything is imported. And that's the cost of this show. You're bringing people from all across the country. And that also means that you've got to rehearse it in three days, 2 1/2 days. In New York, you could be rehearsing something two weeks ahead."

And always, even during heady reveries on the smashing night to come, they're thinking about cuts. The TV broadcast's allotted time without commercials is 90 minutes, 30 seconds, George Stevens says, and everything -- speeches, introductory films, heartfelt tributes and even musical highlights -- will have to be shortened.

In the Cutting Room

It's mid-November, and at an editing studio in Arlington, Stevens is looking over the Farrell, Harris and Redford films in progress. He and the editors are striving to make the richest, fullest films they can, but they're also looking for cuts. The Farrell film is essentially completed at 6 minutes 34 seconds, but its TV length will be 5 minutes 14 seconds, while Redford's will come down by about a minute and Harris's by all of 21 seconds. Every cut will be crucial when the time comes to chop the show down to the length of its TV slot.

Farrell's film is played to general approval.

The prime issue for Redford's is which movie clips to use. Somebody says they'll need to "cut Barbra down a lot" in the bit from "The Way We Were," and there's a protracted discussion over which scene from "All the President's Men" will be used. Everyone agrees that a longish exchange set in The Washington Post's newsroom is strong, but Stevens thinks Redford's co-star, Dustin Hoffman -- they're playing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively -- steals the scene. There's another clip set in Woodward's apartment that might work better.

The editor sees his point, but she really liked that first one. "Remember this scene when we honor [Hoffman]," she says, " 'cause he's good in it!"

After Harris's film is shown, Stevens sits with the script, making deletions, some as small as a single word. He thinks a clip of Harris kissing James Dean in "East of Eden" ends too abruptly, and the editor extends it by a few frames. But overall, he's shaved a few precious seconds off the running time.

The Big Countdown

"We're usually a little crazier this week," Stevens says, clearly pleased. Most years, two or three of the five segments fall together easily; for some reason this year all five more or less did. It's four days and counting to the Honors, and he's sounding confident as he heads off to a production meeting in a large rehearsal space at the center.

For the meeting, tables are arranged in a great rectangle with nearly three dozen chairs around them. Toward the back of the room, a buffet is set up with hot entrees, salads and desserts.

About 20 people -- the director, sound, lighting and costume staffs and others -- take seats around the rectangle, and Stevens calls the meeting to order. They're going over the complete chronology of the show, but there are considerations beyond even that.

"Condi Rice is in the second row of the box," somebody calls out, referring to the Presidential Box, where the first couple always watch the show. A discussion ensues about which is the best seat for her.

Director Louis J. Horvitz, at Stevens's right, leads the session, although every time Stevens speaks, his primacy is apparent.

Stevens suggests that during the Farrell segment, former honorees Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell and Maria Tallchief bring out flowers for the dancers who have just performed.

"And let's get some nice flowers," he says. "The ones they have here are sometimes kinda Kmart."

Former honorees who show up onstage are being encouraged to wear the ribbons that all honorees receive.

Stevens suggests that perhaps the five singers who perform "Broadway Baby" for Harris -- Christine Baranski, Tyne Daly, Michele Lee, Leslie Uggams and Karen Ziemba -- could be introduced at their curtain call, thereby saving a little time.

And it's been suggested that the five wear hats onstage. At that, the room descends briefly into a communal "Hmmmmm." Nobody wants to rule it out, but there's concern that the hats could obscure the performers' faces or otherwise pose a problem.

"Well, if the hats are killing us, we'll kill the hats," Stevens says.

The discussion moves on to Turner's segment; a question is raised about the choir that will accompany Al Green on "Let's Stay Together."

"That choir is not designed to get in the way of Al Green," says Michael Stevens, who's flown in from his home.

"Trust me," somebody across the table says jovially. "Nobody gets in the way of Al Green."

Now the schedule for the next four days is delineated. As it starts, George Stevens announces that they need to wrap up the meeting on time. He's been invited to the Wizards game, "and I'm out of here at 6:20."

Starting Friday, guest performers will start to arrive (Diana Krall, 3:34 p.m., National Airport; Helen Mirren, 3:38 p.m., Dulles; k.d. lang, 4:35 p.m., Dulles). Each needs to be picked up and driven to a rehearsal or a hotel.

George Stevens notes that on the tape of last year's Honors, it's apparent that host Caroline Kennedy's notecards had curled up. He wants them to lie flat this year.

Michael Stevens: "You've got to iron 'em when they come out of the printer."

When the schedule has been completed, George Stevens asks for questions. Hearing none, he adjourns the meeting.

It's 6:25.

Afterglow and 'Agony'

"The nightmare of this week" is Stevens's phrase.

It's several days after the Honors. Assessments of the evening, both anecdotal and in the press, are positive. (Two minor snafus: The curtain got stuck very briefly at one point, and Beyonce's microphone went out for a part of her number. She redid it for the TV cameras, with Turner remaining in her box to applaud a second time.) Stevens and his team have done it again. And yet:

"We're going through this agony of cutting it to time," he says.

Specifically, the show is, or was, 51 minutes too long for the TV time slot.

"To do a great show here, you just buy yourself these problems of editing to television."

Stevens says 20 to 25 minutes falls away easily through preplanned deletions and the elimination of various brief onstage pauses.

Still, "It's agonizing cutting out a lot of these wonderful jokes," he says.

On reflection, however, he knows that a seven-minute speech that left the audience thoroughly entertained the night of the Honors probably will play better on TV at three minutes.

He smiles. "You come to realize it's really two different shows."

As of this day, the show is still 14 minutes too long. That means the bulk of the cutting has been done, but these late cuts will be more difficult than the earlier ones.

So what will the TV viewer miss out on that the black-tie crowd got to see?

Longer speeches, he says. Some of the songs are now a bit shorter. Scene changes now happen instantly.

Two different shows.

"Each new set of honorees is like a new mind game," he says. "Like finding a new golf course or getting a new bridge hand.

"Sometimes it astounds me that after all these years, I really enjoy the challenge of producing this."

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