The 44th Kennedy Center Honors took on added meaning Sunday in Washington.
Not only did it mark the 50th anniversary of the venerable national performing arts center, it was presented as it traditionally has been before COVID: a packed formal celebration early in December for broadcast later in the month. The annual event followed a year when it was bumped by the pandemic to a hybrid one in May, with many performances in front of nothing but TV cameras.
But the biggest change, besides a room full of masks, was the presence of the President of the United States for the first time since 2016 — along with the First Lady, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the First Gentlemen — all there to cheer on the honorees: Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, Motown kingpin Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and Puerto Rican opera star Justino Díaz.
"Nice to see the Presidential box once again being occupied," said nominal host David Letterman ("You all know me from TikTok") as the crowd stood to applaud. "And the same with the Oval Office."
Past honoree Yo Yo Ma set the tone by playing a somber national anthem on cello before inviting the crowd to sing its final lines. He didn't play "O Canada," though two of the five nominees (Mitchell and Michaels) were from north of the border.
Mitchell's singular music was hailed by Cameron Crowe and Dan Levy and performed by Norah Jones, Ellie Goulding, and Brittany Howard with Herbie Hancock. And it was no surprise to see Brandi Carlile, who performed the entirety of Mitchell's album Blue to mark its 50th anniversary at Carnegie Hall last month. (Mitchell, 78, removed her mask to mouth the word "Bravo" at the end of the tribute.) During a brief acceptance speech, Mitchell thanked the audience while nodding to her recent health scares. "I always think that polio was a rehearsal for the rest of my life," she said. "I've had to come back several times from things, and this last one was a real whopper. I'm hobbling along but I'm doing all right!"
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images The biggest change at this year's Honor's? The presence of the President of the United States for the first time since 2016.
An array of opera stars from Denyce Graves and Grace Bumbry to Christian Van Horn saluted Díaz. But he began weeping when his daughters, Katia Díaz and Natascia Diaz, performed the nostalgic bolero "En mi viejo San Juan."
The salute to SNL's Michaels, who at 77 is in the middle of producing the 47th season of the influential late-night comedy hit, was perhaps the most star-packed. Steve Martin and Paul Simon bookended tributes from cast members past and present, with three different desks of "Weekend Update" zinging jokes — from Kevin Nealon, Amy Poehler with Seth Meyers, and the current team of Colin Jost and Michael Che.
"It was a lot easier for others to make jokes about Lorne because he's not their current boss," said Jost, whose wife Scarlett Johansson popped up on stage later to honor Midler for her New York civic work.
Che, for his part, said he was nervous at first performing before the president, but added, "there's no way he's still awake by now."
Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, and Kenan Thompson also came out with praise for Michaels. Simon told a story about knowing Michaels prior to SNL before a tremulous version of "America."
Goldie Hawn and Barbara Hershey, friends and former co-stars of Midler, were on hand to introduce Divine Miss M hits. Beanie Feldstein, Kate Baldwin, and Taylor Trensch — who starred with Midler in the 2017 Hello Dolly revival — sang "Friends"; another Broadway star, Kelli O'Hara, brought an appropriately stirring "Wind Beneath My Wings." But Billy Porter, who credits his career to a Midler boost, came with his own half shell to sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "From a Distance," gospel style.
A wealth of Motown hits enlivened the Gordy salute, who at 92 has outlived much of his roster. The Temptations and the Supremes who performed, after all, were from the cast of Broadway's Ain't Too Proud. But Smokey Robinson anchored the salute, reviving a song he wrote for Gordy's 2013 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction that asked, "Did you know all the joy you'd be bringing?"
Paul Morigi/Getty Images Goldie Hawn, Barbara Hershey, Beanie Feldstein, and more stars paid tribute to Bette Midler's career.
It may have been strange to have, star of a recent Billie Holiday bio film, to sing "God Bless the Child" as a way to salute Gordy's own Holiday bio film, Lady Sings the Blues. But if it meant hearing Day scorch the classic, it was worth it.
Later, Stevie Wonder appeared as if he was only sending his wishes via video. Then the scene changed to a young boy pretending to play "Fingertips," his first hit as Little Stevie Wonder, before the curtain opened to show the real performer. A glitch in the transition, though, caused a pause for a few minutes, warranting a redo.
Quipped Letterman: If he was such a great producer, "Lorne, why the hell didn't you manage to fix it?"
Technicalities fixed, Wonder did a medley of "My Cherie Amour" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" topped by a "Superstition" that got the fancy crowd to their feet. And joined by Day, Howard, Goulding, and Porter, Wonder closed by driving everyone to "Higher Ground."
The event will be broadcast Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.