This spectacle had to have the white-hot spotlight, front page, bold type (whoa-oh!) — to quote one of the evening’s celebrated songwriters — because this Kennedy Center Honors gala was a talker. The night might have begun as the latest parade of cultural icons seated in an opera box with their president, but when a rapper and a Supreme Court justice take the same stage, it isn’t your standard lifetime achievement fete.
This year, the Kennedy Center honored actress Shirley MacLaine, opera singer Martina Arroyo, musician Carlos Santana — who beamed while sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama — and two piano men: Herbie Hancock and Billy Joel. If the honorees had performed together, it would have been a dream collaboration — but as is the 36-year custom, they sat, smiled and watched others pay tribute to lives lived on stages and screens.
The show — hosted by actress Glenn Close — began with a resounding rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Should anyone still doubt the Kennedy Center’s eagerness to include Hispanics in its annual hall-of-fame tribute, Harry Belafonte (1989 honoree) arrived onstage to deliver what might have been the sharpest pinch of the night:
“Well, I’ll tell you folks, there’s no two ways about it. [Pause] We’ve got to do something about Mexican immigration,” the entertainer-activist said to uproarious laughter. “Every day you have people like Carlos Santana coming into this country and taking jobs that should be going to Americans.”
Quick, cameras! Cut to the senators, stat!
Those who were hoping for more feisty rhetoric were stuck with feel-good vibes — oh, that transcendental sound — played by Juanes and Tom Morello, with Fher Olvera of the Mexican rock band Mana. They gave a spirited rendition of Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” providing the best direction (after “turn off mobile phones”) for an Honors tribute at which all five legends are musical: Listen to how this rhythm goes, they beckoned.
Buddy Guy joined to play and sing “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” — a special moment for Santana, who considers Guy one of his idols; Santana went full-on fanboy, leading the standing ovation for Guy. The English rocker Steve Winwood joined the gang with percussionist Sheila E., performing the 1971 hit “Everybody’s Everything.”
Then, for the evening’s first surprise: a glittering Supreme Court justice took the stage to honor . . . well, let’s allow Sonia Sotomayor to explain why she was here.
“I’m here for the diva,” she said, before noting that Arroyo is no diva in the modern sense — just one of the few operatic sopranos who can truly sing the Italian spinto repertoire.
The musical tribute to Arroyo celebrated the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth — and the opera that made her a star, “Aida.” Tenor Joseph Calleja sang “Celeste Aida” and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky serenaded the audience with “O Patria Mia.”
Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice to toast an Honors groundbreaker — but why her? Well, Arroyo and Sotomayor are friends, Honors producer George Stevens Jr. said before the show, and this element of surprise is part of what makes the Honors special. Indeed, Stevens, working with son Michael, looks for unexpected pairings that will surprise a television audience — and the honoree.
Oh, but this next surprise. Are you sure, Mr. Stevens?
Ladies and gentlemen, Bill O’Reilly!
For the jazz pianist and zen master Herbie Hancock?
“I know — I’m surprised, too,” O’Reilly quipped to the shocked audience. Well, you can’t say the Kennedy Center Honors aren’t fair and balanced in their presenter choices.
Noted O’Reilly: “I don’t hang with [Hancock]. . . . I don’t want to ruin his reputation.” But O’Reilly is a fan — the two met while appearing on “The Tonight Show” together — and they have a strong rapport, we were told. He was followed by more obvious appearances by Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, who played “Walkin’ ” and “Watermelon Man.”
Then came a man who needs no introduction, mainly because we’re still unsure of what to call him: Snoop Dogg . . . Lion?
The center opted for calling the rapper Snoop Dogg, knowing that some donors in the audience would be confused enough already. But Mrs. Obama wasn’t, bobbing her head seconds into his appearance. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined in when Snoop told “the party people in the house” to put their hands up.
Hancock’s influence on hip-hop is profound, with “Cantaloupe Island” serving as the sample of Us3’s 1993 hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” Snoop began that song — “Groovy, groovy jazzy funky pounce bounce” — and then slipped into an updated version of his “Gin and Juice.”
Rolling down the street playing Her-bie.
After a brief intermission came MacLaine’s tribute, which presented a daunting task: How do you find the right person to toast a woman who has been friends with everyone in Hollywood? The Honors chose Kathy Bates, whom MacLaine directed in the little-seen film “Bruno” and worked with on three other films. A visibly nervous Bates was the only presenter who took to roasting an honoree, playfully calling MacLaine the “inquisitive” sort of person who will talk to anyone.
“You’ll talk to beings no one else but you can see,” said Bates, referring to MacLaine’s fascination with extraterrestrials.
MacLaine made the tribute performance easier than usual, since it’s notoriously difficult to fete film actors onstage. MacLaine is also a skilled theater actress and dancer, and the tribute began with a montage of “The Pajama Game,” which kicked off MacLaine’s Broadway career in the 1950s; “Steam Heat” and Anna Kendrick’s “It’s Not Where You Start” from the Broadway show “Seesaw” also charmed.
Next, several generations of singers — including Tony Bennett — saluted Joel. Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco sang Joel’s 1978 hit “Big Shot” (whoa-oh!) to a crowd that might not have picked up on the irony. And Don Henley sang “She’s Got a Way,” turning the wedding standard into a folksy ballad.
Then, the best-selling living American solo artist — Garth Brooks — paid tribute to Joel, who places second in that sales race. Brooks sang twangy versions of “Only the Good Die Young” and “Allentown” (treating the audience to Joel’s “The Last Play at Shea” flashback). Brooks’s appearance also spotlighted how Joel’s lyrics can vacillate between musical theater and country anthems.
What performance the Honors will save for last can be a talked-about question in this political town. But the producers chose wisely: A good portion of the 2,500-person audience would need the powder room to dry their eyes after a tear-inducing rendition of Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.” When a parade of Vietnam veterans joined the haunting chorus of “And we will all go down together,” the night became less celebratory but infinitely more memorable.
It could have ended there, but really, it couldn’t have. Someone had to come out and transform the Opera House into a sort of dingy dive bar. Rufus Wainwright performed — and Brooks, Bennett and Henley took us back to the ’70s with “Piano Man.”
As usual, it sounded like a carnival.
The Honors ceremony will be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS.