Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter acknowledged that the decision to honor a work of art is a dramatic change in the Honors’ four-decade history, but she said it was warranted because of “Hamilton’s” enormous influence. The hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers has garnered international attention, brought new fans to Broadway, and received a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy and Tony awards.
“Our conversations were about how powerful this work has been, what it has done to the conversation, the coverage it has received and how powerfully it has impacted every single individual,” Rutter said. “How can we acknowledge it now, while it’s happening?”
The musical’s four creators will be the youngest to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Miranda is 38; Kail, 40; Lacamoire, 43; and Blankenbuehler, 48. LL Cool J, one of last year’s winners, and Stevie Wonder were 49 when they were given the award.
In a statement, the four artists said they were humbled by the center’s decision to break with tradition to recognize a single work.
“I’m pretty sure Rita Moreno, mi reina, snuck into their offices and stuffed the ballot box,” added Miranda, referring to the 2015 honoree.
The Kennedy Center has honored groups before, including the Eagles in 2016 and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who in 2008, as well as such creative partnerships as musical theater legends Fred Ebb and John Kander in 1998 and husband-and-wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in 2004.
The selection of “Hamilton” and its young creators — who were behind the earlier “In the Heights” musical — also represents the Kennedy Center’s focus on current art, Rutter said.
“Part of our current identity is to celebrate greatness that has already been achieved and greatness that is happening now,” she said.
The award continues a trend of recognizing artists whose works are featured on the arts center’s stages. In 2015, Carole King was honored weeks after her biographical musical, “Beautiful,” was presented, and 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan was saluted the month before her musical, “On Your Feet,” opened at the Kennedy Center.
“It had nothing to do with that,” Rutter said about “Hamilton.” “It’s not a thank you but rather an acknowledgment of its power.”
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has celebrated American culture with a star-studded performance and gala that raises money for its programs. A highlight of Washington’s social calendar, the Honors feature top artists who perform while the honorees — wearing medallions with rainbow ribbons — watch from the Opera House’s box tier. The performance will be broadcast on Dec. 26 on CBS.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump have not confirmed their attendance at the event, the second Honors of Trump’s tenure, Rutter said, and a spokeswoman for the first lady said it’s “too soon” to make that call. The couple did not attend last year after three honorees said they would boycott the White House reception that traditionally precedes the performance. In response, the White House said in August that the Trumps would not attend “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distractions.” Jimmy Carter did not attend in 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, and Bill Clinton missed the Honors in 1994 when he was at a conference in Europe. Both times, their wives hosted.
When asked about the Trumps’ attendance, Rutter said: “It’s important as a national memorial, for us to welcome and serve and celebrate everyone here. We revere and respect the office of the president, and to have the office of the president respect the arts is important to us.”
Glass, for one, said he hoped the president would join the party.
“The best thing would be if he would come to the awards and meet us and talk to us,” said the 81-year-old composer, who admitted he doesn’t think the president will attend. “This president ignores the arts, and no one has ignored them as he has. It wasn’t ignored under Kennedy, under Nixon, under the Bushes. This is a break from that, and to me, it’s disappointing.”
The 2018 honorees represent the best of American culture, said Glass.
“Right here in this group of five, you have the whole picture. No matter what people think of our politics, our reputation for artmaking is international and very appreciated,” he said.
Born in Baltimore and educated at the University of Chicago and Juilliard, Glass has written music for opera, dance and film. His opera “Appomattox” was presented by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in 2015. His credits include the opera “Einstein on the Beach” and scores for such films as “Kundun” and “The Truman Show.”
Glass received a 2015 National Medal of Arts, presented by President Barack Obama in the last months of his term. Those were the last such medals given out, as Trump has not presented any since taking office.
Country singer and actress McEntire, 63, has enjoyed decades of success in the music industry, selling more than 56 million albums and winning three Grammy Awards. She starred in the TV sitcom “Reba” for six seasons, has more than 10 movies to her credit and performed on Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun.” A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, McEntire hosted the American Country Music Awards for the 15th time in April.
McEntire participated in the Kennedy Center Honors salutes to Dolly Parton in 2006 and Lily Tomlin in 2014. “It was a huge honor,” she said of those appearances. “When they told me I was being honored, I was thrilled, tickled to pieces.”
The Kennedy Center also has celebrated the achievements of country music legends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn.
“They are my heroes, people I have looked up to all my life, aspired to be like and learn from. Following in their footsteps is a dream come true,” McEntire said.
A native of Newark, Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959, launching a 60-year career that shows no signs of slowing. He performed with Miles Davis’s second quintet, a group that included Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, and he went on to form the fusion band Weather Report. Later collaborators have included Carlos Santana, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell.
Shorter said he was humbled by the honor. “I’m one of the few who stayed in the front trenches, stayed in the struggle to inspire people,” the 84-year-old saxophonist said. “Some people may have wanted to give me an award for effort.”
Shorter has earned multiple Grammy Awards — including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 — and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award and is working on an opera with bassist Esperanza Spalding. In 2013, he was part of the Kennedy Center Honors salute to Hancock.
“This award is cutting through all of the politics and all of that,” Shorter said of the president. “I’ll stay in the trenches with the artists. I’m not getting all up at arms about somebody from the White House being there.”
Cher, 72, has enjoyed a career in music, television and film for more than 50 years, starting in the 1960s when she met the upstart producer Sonny Bono and they recorded “I Got You Babe,” a smash hit that led to a successful TV comedy show. The actress also appeared on Broadway and in the hit movies “Silkwood” and “Moonstruck,” for which she won an Oscar for best actress. She is now starring in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” and a musical about her life is expected to open on Broadway this year.
The Kennedy Center selects the honorees from recommendations of its Special Honors Advisory Committee, a panel chaired by Elaine Wynn with members of the Kennedy Center board and past recipients including Julie Andrews, Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma and Chita Rivera. Nominations come from this panel and from the public.