You want eclectic? You got eclectic, and then some, at the Kennedy Center Sunday night during the annual Honors Gala, the city’s biggest, ritziest, celebrity-est party, fundraiser and made-for-TV tribute fest.
The 34th version of the three-hour show — this year honoring Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Barbara Cook, Sonny Rollins and Neil Diamond — was its usual concoction of high and low and several things in between, played out in front of the president and first lady and a tuxedo-and-ballgowned crowd. Alternately noisy and solemn, rousing and high-minded, the Honors performances were, typically, a three-ring circus of American arts and culture.
With the five honorees ensconced with the first couple at balcony level and the swells nestled in $5,500-a-ticket orchestra seats, there was, as usual, something, and someone, for the entire family: bluegrass, bebop, Broadway, “Out of Africa” and well-behaved choru ses of “Sweet Caroline.”
For Streep, an all-star collection of stage and movie talent competed to bestow praise on the woman regularly referred to as “the greatest actress of her generation.” Mike Nichols, who directed Streep in four films, including the drama “Silkwood” and the comedy “Heartburn,” said of her: “She could handle any part thrown at her, except maybe Gidget.” Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci and Streep’s “Sophie’s Choice” co-star Kevin Kline debated the best Streep role. Her “Deer Hunter” co-star, Robert De Niro, went in the other direction. After a video summary of Streep’s career, he quipped, “Looking at those great moments over the years, I realize . . . I was amazing in ‘Deer Hunter.’ ”
Bill Cosby introduced Rollins’s segment, calling the jazz saxophonist “a giant of this most American art form.” This was followed by a mini-concert (Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” Rollins’s “Sonnymoon for Two,” among other numbers), featuring a small army of sax masters — Benny Golson, Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath and Ravi Coltrane. Rollins, his bushy silver mane as distinct as a beacon in the balcony, looked on with evident pleasure.
Cook, the one-time Broadway ingenue who evolved into a cabaret and music-hall maestro, was serenaded by Broadway royalty, including Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald. The surprise of the torch-song parade was Glenn Close, the original Norma Desmond in the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard,” who sang “Losing My Mind” from “Follies” with just a hint of Desmond-like desperation.
Diamond was introduced (for reasons unclear) by John Lithgow, who called the pop singer-songwriter “an American classic.” And then the radio-friendly Diamond hits poured forth from the likes of Raphael Saadiq (“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”), Jennifer Nettles (“Hello Again”) and Lionel Richie (“I Am, I Said”). (Because this was an evening of celebration, no one mentioned that the last song contains perhaps the most quizzical couplet in a monster-selling pop song: “I am, I said, to no one there / And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” Not even the chair?)
And, of course, “Sweet Caroline.” The ballpark and frat-house singalong classic was rendered by Smokey Robinson, with big horn backing. This led to the inevitable audience participation part, with a twist: Scenery parted to reveal a grandstand full of 100 or so Boston Red Sox fans, who have made the Diamond song their anthem. Extra nice touch: The whole crew was joined onstage by Caroline Kennedy.
The pre-show red-carpet arrivals were once again one of those weird only-in-Washington rituals, with politicians stacking up behind movie stars, musicians and recording artists. Newt Gingrich and wife Callista were early arrivals (turns out “Mamma Mia!” is a big Gingrich favorite — did not know that) , just ahead of another former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Streep strolled regally in a deep blue gown by Elie Saab (had to ask to find out). Cook was escorted by her son, Adam LeGrant.
The show’s finale was an extended tribute to Ma, which was a bit of a surprise, given that the last spot is usually reserved for a stirring medley of the pop-music honoree’s big hits. But the final musical mash-up was somehow appropriate for Ma, the much-celebrated cellist who has regularly wandered far from his classical roots. First came an introduction by Stephen Colbert (Ma has been a guest on his show) followed by remarks from Elmo (Ma has appeared on his show, “Sesame Street”). The performance segment included a classical quintet, a bluegrass trio and the world-music Silk Road Ensemble.
The big to-do concluded with all those players, along with a children’s choir, backing James Taylor on the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
Eclectic, for sure.
A two-hour version of the ceremonies will be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS.
Read more about this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees: