The Kennedy Center Honors launched a new era Sunday night with the debut of a production team that updated the show while remaining true to many of its long-standing traditions.
With a sleek contemporary design and faster pace, the 38th-annual national celebration of the arts honored singer-songwriter Carole King, filmmaker George Lucas, actress-singer Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa and actress Cicely Tyson. Gone were the marching bands and veterans groups that were a mainstay of previous productions. Instead, producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment offered snippets of the private White House reception that preceded the performance and personal tributes from a roster of superstars.
Although it is tradition for the artists to sit with the president and first lady as the performances unfold, the duties fell solely on the shoulders of Michelle Obama for the first part of the event. President Obama, who addressed the nation from the Oval Office at 8 p.m., arrived during intermission and was introduced at the beginning of the second act.
Despite his absence, the president was a big part of the first act, as his remarks from the earlier White House ceremony were screened for the black-tie guests in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
“George Lucas recently . . . told a reporter, ‘I never got the experience that everyone else got to have. I never got to see ‘Star Wars,’ ” Obama said. “Well, George, let me tell you — you missed out. That movie was awesome.”
Scenes from the White House reception, as well as from a dinner at the State Department on Saturday night, were a highlight of each segment, which also included snippets of the honorees accepting their rainbow-ribbon medals.
A visibly moved Moreno recalled coming to these shores from Puerto Rico with her single mother. “We came to America. To the unknown, really,” she said. “What a ride. I am so blessed.”
Late-night TV host Stephen Colbert returned for a second year as host, and he began the show with a 10-minute monologue that poked fun at Washington, the president and first lady, and a few of the show’s traditions. For example, Colbert pointed out, the honorees would remain in the balcony with the first lady for the duration of the show.
“They don’t have to do anything tonight other than sit there and listen,” he said. “We could say nice things about them, we could say terrible things about them. Point is: They can’t leave.”
Gina Rodriguez, who plays Moreno’s granddaughter on TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” offered a tearful tribute to the actress, who has won a Tony, an Oscar, two Emmys and a Grammy.
“I met you on the screen, and I just loved you,” Rodriguez said. “You gave me hope and a reason to fight and speak up.”
Actress Rosie Perez re-created Moreno’s award-winning duet with Animal the Muppet, and Broadway star and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda congratulated his brutally honest friend. “She commands our attention, she speaks up for us, she tells the truth,” he said. The segment ended with Karen Olivo performing “America” from “West Side Story,” a fitting celebration of the actress who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the film adaptation.
The artistry of longtime Boston Symphony conductor Ozawa was celebrated by friends and collaborators, including violinist Itzhak Perlman, a 2003 honoree, and soprano Renée Fleming. Both spoke of Ozawa’s rare talent and his legacy in Boston, but neither performed.
Fleming introduced a long video clip of Ozawa conducting “our cellist in chief” Yo-Yo Ma before the 2007 honoree appeared onstage to perform with string musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center.
Perlman told the story of once having dinner with Ozawa at a Chinese restaurant. The conductor decided he didn’t want anything on the menu, so he called a nearby Japanese joint and had sushi delivered — to the Chinese place. “That’s chutzpah,” Perlman said.
In a nod to “Star Wars,” a hologram of actress Carrie Fisher introduced the salute to director Lucas, who was commended for both his storytelling skills and his technological genius.
Steven Spielberg, a 2006 honoree, compared the creator of the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” series to “Edison, Bell, Tesla and Jobs,” saying he changed movies forever.
Martin Scorsese spoke of Lucas’s many obsessions — cars, movies about cars, education, music — and then introduced the orchestra, which played a medley of music from those films as scenes were screened.
The new production team of Kirshner and Weiss replaced George Stevens Jr., the founding producer who had run the gala event since 1978. Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein acknowledged Stevens’s contribution after thanking the new team.
The second act opened with Miranda Lambert performing “Desperado,” one of the Eagles’ greatest hits. The rockers were supposed to be part of the 2015 celebration, but the health of founder Glenn Frey forced them to postpone their participation until next year.
Actor-director Tyler Perry launched the salute to Tyson by recalling a moment on the set of the movie “Alex Cross,” when the petite actress grabbed him in a death grip.
“She spun me around like I was one of those white girls on ‘DancingWith the Stars,’ ” he said. “This woman is so strong. How could she not be? As an actor, she turned down more roles than you can imagine because they didn’t lift us or serve us as a people.”
Viola Davis told Tyson that the actress changed her life, while Kerry Washington recalled the power of Tyson’s work two years ago on Broadway in “A Trip to Bountiful.” Audiences especially connected to her version of a gospel hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” Washington said.
“We sang with you, we clapped with you, we worshiped with you right there in the theater,” Washington said.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard performed “My Funny Valentine,” a nod to Tyson’s one-time husband, the late Miles Davis. Singer CeCe Winans provided the evening’s emotional highlight by singing the “Bountiful” hymn with the choir from the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, N.J. Tears flowing, Tyson stood and sang along.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a friend of King’s, introduced the final segment, celebrating King’s songwriting success, environmental activism and civic engagement.
“Carole’s career is literally nothing short of astounding. To write one hit is impressive, but as Stephen Colbert reminded us earlier, Carole wrote more than a hundred,” Kerry said. “Simply put, Carole King’s music became the soundtrack for a generation.”
In a rousing finale, the cast of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” provided a live biography of King. Rocker Janelle Monae performed “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “One Fine Day,” and Sara Bareilles offered her version of “You’ve Got a Friend.”
But even King’s jaw dropped when Aretha Franklin came onstage, sat at a piano and belted out “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” her 1967 hit penned by King and her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. Franklin had everyone on their feet.
“Congratulations, Carole. Tonight, Carole King, you’re Carole Queen,” Franklin said.
The production will air on CBS on Dec. 29.