- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Meryl Streep received her next film assignment over the weekend from a friend _ to play the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton in a future film _ as Streep and four others were saluted with the Kennedy Center Honors.

The jesting offer came when writer Nora Ephron said Streep’s talent, versatility and resemblance to Clinton made it “inevitable” that she would one day play the secretary of state and former first lady. Clinton, who flew home for 36 hours to celebrate the honorees over the weekend, just laughed, while Streep jokingly stood up for a better look at the nation’s top diplomat.

Along with Streep, pop singer Neil Diamond, Broadway singer Barbara Cook famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins joined in receiving the nation’s top award Sunday night for those who have influenced American culture through the arts.

Caroline Kennedy, who hosts the show as part of a living memorial to her father, John F. Kennedy, acknowledged her personal connection to one honoree.

In a nod to Diamond, she said he was “a Brooklyn lad with a gift of melody who grew into a solitary man, `reaching out, touching me.’” That was enough to draw big laughs as the crowd of celebrities and politicians recalled that Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was named for her.

“I’m going to have to thank her for that,” Diamond said before the show, noting that the song is a story about him and his former wife. But he took the name from Kennedy.

Smokey Robinson sang “Sweet Caroline” with help from Kennedy and fans brought in from Boston’s Fenway Park where it’s a favorite anthem.

Lionel Richie, who sang, “I am… I said,” told The Associated Press he got into the music business because he wanted to be Diamond.

“He’s a great storyteller,” Richie said. “He’s not an acrobatic singer. Basically he told the story in a very simple voice.”

Classical music stole the show’s finale, though, with surprise tributes from Stephen Colbert _ who seemed lost at first _ and the puppet Elmo from TV’s “Sesame Street.”

“Tonight we celebrate the greatest living cellist,” Colbert said “We chell-ebrate, if you will.”

Ma, one of the best-known classical musicians, has played cello since he was 4. At age 7, he played for presidents Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Now at 56, he is hailed as a musical ambassador to the world who has spanned styles from Bluegrass to sounds from the Silk Road with an ensemble he founded. Many of his friends performed in his honor.

Elmo, dressed in a tux, said he came to honor his friend, Ma who taught him that “music is like a playground” that makes everybody happy.

James Taylor and conductor John Williams joined in a performance of “Here Comes the Sun” with a string ensemble.

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