“Sesame Street” was one of the five honorees at the 42nd celebration of the awards, along with rock singer Linda Ronstadt, Oscar winner Sally Field, maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire. With a passel of familiar Muppet characters — Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster among them — recruited to join in the festivities, the segment devoted to the 50-year-old children’s program highlighted the show’s admirable social and educational mission.
As a new extension of the Honors’s own mission, though, the salute to the program fell flat. The ceremony’s producers and directors need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make a testimonial to a collaborative program as vivid and compelling as those for single artists, or music groups. Although it was jolly to have Big Bird joust verbally in the Opera House audience with actor Tom Hanks — whose name Big Bird jokingly misstated as “Mr. Thanks” — something was lost. It was, it seemed, the emotional connection performers on the stage make with the individuals seated in the honorees’ boxes.
While Sesame Workshop creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett Jr. were the cited recipients in attendance, a spectator couldn’t quite feel the frisson one experienced, watching, for instance, as Ronstadt heard country singer Emmylou Harris movingly call her “a fearless artist who set the bar high for all of us. . . . Linda, my sister, my dear companion, thank you.” That Ronstadt suffers from a Parkinson’s-like illness and had to retire from performing in 2009 made the tribute all the more poignant.
It is the personalized appeal to the heart in which the Honors excels — the performances and speeches that stars and stars-in-the-making deliver for their peers or idols in the box. (In a speech after the “Sesame Street” segment, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein acknowledged the original Big Bird puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, who died Sunday, by noting that “the tribute to ‘Sesame Street’ tonight is in his honor.” Perhaps the muddled quality of the “Sesame Street” tribute was due in part to the news of Spinney’s death.)
In any case, the show offered some tender and exhilarating interludes, even if the proceedings otherwise felt subdued. Among the better segments: Audra McDonald, pianist Yuja Wang and alumni of Miami’s New World Symphony — which Thomas co-founded — saluting the conductor with a rousing version of the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm”; a montage of Field’s film, television and stage portrayals, introduced by Hanks and spotlighting her range in everything from TV’s “The Flying Nun” to her Oscar-winning work in “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart”; Tricia Yearwood belting Ronstadt’s scintillating hit “You’re No Good”; and John Legend infusing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” with a contemporary coolness.
The roster of stars who turned out for the efficiently produced three-hour event, hosted by previous honoree LL Cool J, surpassed some other recent years: The list included Steven Spielberg, Maura Tierney and Pierce Brosnan for Field; Cedric the Entertainer and Joseph Gordon Levitt for “Sesame Street”; and Don Henley and Carrie Underwood for Ronstadt, with Underwood singing the Ronstadt songs “Blue Bayou” and “When Will I Be Loved.”
Political stars were more in view than in recent years, too, despite the continued absence of President Trump and first lady Melania Trump. Rubenstein noted in his remarks that more high government officials were in attendance this year, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and five other members of Trump’s Cabinet; and 40 members of Congress. But the audience’s most boisterous reaction came when Rubenstein acknowledged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The announcement of her name drew a standing ovation and a magnitude of sustained applause that appeared to startle her.
The New World Symphony alumni distinguished themselves in Thomas’s honor with a performance of compositions by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. But the segment that seemed to propel the audience from a gala-benefit stupor into a boogie frame of mind came toward the end of the evening. That’s when the tribute machinery turned to Earth, Wind & Fire and its original members in the box, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White.
The musicians were visibly moved as Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”) came on to sing a medley of “Fantasy” and “Reasons.” Then NE-yo appeared to deliver a sultry rendition of “Shining Star,” which got the Opera House audience on its feet to shimmy. And the Jonas Brothers topped off the evening’s closing segment with a dazzling “Boogie Wonderland,” before the whole ensemble joined for a finale of “September.” It spoke to the bountiful Honors payoff in recognizing infectious rock and R&B catalogues, and the artists who made them great.
Peggy McGlone contributed to this report. The 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony is scheduled to air next Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.