By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 1:00 AM
Half the fun of the Kennedy Center Honors, and almost all of the surprise, comes from who shows up to celebrate whom each year. The celebrator-celebrated combos are often intriguing, and occasionally a bit puzzling - Sunday night's gala being Exhibit A.
Sure, Willie Nelson naturally showed up to sing the praises of honoree Merle Haggard, and Broadway legends Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury (looking and sounding swell at 89 and 85, respectively) did the same in honor of "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" composer-lyricist Jerry Herman.
But Alec Baldwin doing the intro for Paul McCartney? And Steven Tyler, Norah Jones, Dave Grohl and Gwen Stefani and No Doubt providing the Beatles covers? Same thing with Julia Roberts introducing Oprah Winfrey, or Claire Danes and playwright Edward Albee speaking on behalf of honoree Bill T. Jones, an avant-garde choreographer.
Connections? Turns out Oprah and Roberts are old friends, as are Danes and Jones; Baldwin and McCartney are East Hampton neighbors who take summer yoga class together (why didn't People magazine tell us this?). Albee (himself a 1996 Kennedy Center honoree) apparently just likes Jones.
The jumbled mix-and-match of celebrity and celebration is all part of the black-tie evening, which has combined speechifying, song and spectacle every year since the Honors began in 1978. There aren't too many events that combine the disparate elements of the Honors, and certainly not any that includes the president and the first lady sitting in the first row of the balcony with the five recipients.
The highlights of this year's ceremony before the usual crowd of swells and dignitaries (tickets ran from $350 to $5,000) included a rousing Broadway revue of Herman's work, starring "Glee's" Matthew Morrison and featuring the singing of an all-star lineup that included Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Laura Benanti, Kelsey Grammer, Christine Ebersole and Sutton Foster.
An extended singalong of "Hey Jude," hitting what seemed like all 19 "Na na naah" lines from the original, brought Sir Paul, the president and first lady and the crowd to their feet, with the audience waving cellphones. And Jennifer Hudson drew a standing ovation for a powerful, rafters-shaking version of "I'm Here," from "The Color Purple," the movie a young Winfrey starred in and later produced as a Broadway musical.
The praise for the recipients, as you might expect, was flowing.
Sitting onstage on a mock "Oprah" set, Barbara Walters said of the 56-year-old Winfrey, "Simply put, she is the best interviewer ever." She added modestly, "No one comes close, not even me. Those of you who know me know how painful it was for me to say that."
Vince Gill called Haggard, 73, "one of the greatest of all time." Said Gill, "Hag tells it like it is. He's the poet of the common man," who sings about the quest for "a decent job, self-respect and a place to call home." Nelson (sans his signature braid) joined Sheryl Crow for a duet on Haggard's classic "Today I Started Loving You Again."
As for McCartney, 68, is there any praise left unsaid? Maybe not in Washington, where he was feted last June at the Library of Congress and the White House in winning the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Baldwin wisely went mostly ironic in his introduction: "I can't begin to tell you how awful [McCartney's] early years were. [He had to play] places reserved for baseball games, bullfights . . . papal Masses. [He was] assaulted by throngs of female gang members. He was finally reduced to performing on the 'Ed Sullivan Show,' sharing the stage with a mouse named Topo Gigio." He also noted that "Paul McCartney is a genius . . . [who] married rock-and-roll to beauty."
The big windup featured the odd couple of Grohl and Jones doing "Maybe I'm Amazed" (it worked, actually), followed later by all those "Na na naahs" with Tyler, James Taylor and Mavis Staples.
Jones, 58, was the busiest of the evening's recipients. KenCen honorees typically get escorted through a weekend of adulatory events, from a State Department brunch to a White House visit to the evening's culminating gala. Jones, however, went to work at the Kennedy Center on Friday, supervising details of the presentation of his dance "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," which was performed Sunday night.
Before the ceremony itself, an almost surreal parade of celebrities strolled past a phalanx of cameras and reporters on the Kennedy Center's red carpet. The list was typical perhaps for a KenCen Honors, but unusual in showbiz terms. Where else, for example, would you find the likes of Rivera, John Lithgow, Stefani (and the rest of the No Doubters), Gayle King, Oprah, Nancy Pelosi, Haggard, Channing, Kris Kristofferson, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson?
Herman, 79, unaccompanied on the carpet, called the weekend of events in his honor "the most incredible experience . . . it's indescribable." Added Herman, "It's more than flattering. It's like being crowned."
"Weeds" star Mary-Louise Parker was the odd celebrity out - she was neither a presenter nor performer nor honoree. Accompanied by her mother, Caroline, Parker said she came to the Honors essentially as a tourist. "It's the one event I don't have to be bribed to attend," she said. Referring to Haggard, Winfrey and Jones, she noted, "They've overcome a lot of difficulties and challenges to get where they are. Isn't that what this country is about?"
CBS will air its annual telecast of the ceremonies on Dec. 28.