The first Kennedy Center Honors hosted by the country’s first black president was a celebration of a multicultural and international America that mirrors the administration.
Awards were given to an actor who put Italian-American life on the big screen, a musician who represents patriotism at its best, a Jewish-American comic who fearlessly sent up racial and religious stereotypes, an opera singer who blazed a trail for her fellow blacks, and a jazz musician who for decades, as Herbie Hancock said at the gala tribute, “served as unofficial ambassador for America.”
What might be the nation’s top award for achievement in the performing arts are usually given to a mix of the famous and the slightly obscure. This year’s class, though, was heavy on the popular favorites — Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks and Dave Brubeck. Only Grace Bumbry, filling the spot usually reserved for classical music or dance, is not well-known to millions.
“I don’t think there’s a design to that,” Honors creator and producer George Stevens Jr. told The Washington Times during the Saturday rehearsal for Sunday’s main event.
The committee that selects the honorees might have had another theme in mind, though.
“This year, they are all American,” Mr. Stevens noted of an award that has sometimes gone to foreigners, such as operatic tenor Placido Domingo and, last year, members of the Who.
“We thought for the first year of a new president, it’s a nice touch.” The president and first lady Michelle Obama received the honorees at the White House hours before stars of stage and screen walked the red carpet at the Kennedy Center en route to the Opera House for a tribute performance that will be telecast on CBS on Dec. 29.
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“On a day like this, I remember I’m the president, but he’s the Boss,” he told Mr. Springsteen at the reception.
Sunday also happened to be Mr. Brubeck’s 89th birthday. At the gala, Mr. Hancock and a collection of talented musicians — which eventually included Mr. Brubeck’s four sons — performed a medley of some of his greatest hits, including “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and ended with a jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The evening, emceed as usual by presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy, began with the tribute to Mr. De Niro. Martin Scorsese, himself a 2007 Kennedy Center honoree and the man who directed Mr. De Niro to his best-actor Oscar in “Raging Bull,” talked about what the actor taught him: “He finds the humanity in people who, at first glance, seem totally inhuman.”
Meryl Streep spoke of “the restraint, the courtliness, the danger in young Don Corleone” — Mr. De Niro also received an Oscar for that performance in “The Godfather, Part II.”
Sharon Stone and Harvey Keitel were also on hand to pay tribute, while the young actor most like the intense Mr. De Niro, Edward Norton, talked about repeatedly watching his performances “to study and understand their bizarre and brilliant rhythms.”
Ben Stiller, who starred with Mr. De Niro in “Meet the Parents,” was also on stage to admire the actor, but he saved his funniest line for Mr. Brooks: “He’s like the Barack Obama for short, funny Jews. Yes, we can!”
Frank Langella, who opened up a musical medley for Mr. Brooks after his frequent collaborator, Carl Reiner, paid a hilarious, meandering tribute, also tipped his hat to Mr. Obama: “I hope the lyrics to the theme song of ‘The 12 Chairs’ guide you in office.” The song begins, “Hope for the best; expect the worst.”
Jack Black proved he can sing — and still garner belly laughs — with a rendition of “Men in Tights,” while Harry Connick Jr. added just a little bit of comedy to a serious and buttery rendition of “High Anxiety.” Martin Short, Richard Kind, Jane Krakowski, Matthew Morrison and Gary Beach also performed, while Matthew Broderick ended the medley with a song from the Broadway musical and second film of “The Producers,” in which he starred.
Earlier on the red carpet, Mr. Broderick said Mr. Brooks had been an influence for years before that: “Those ‘2000-Year-Old Man’ records, I had as a kid.”
Comedy Central host Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” gave a heartfelt and funny tribute to Mr. Springsteen. He noted he’s no music expert — “But I am from New Jersey.” The musician taught him to take a chance on making it big. As he said, “When you listen to Bruce Springsteen’s songs, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem about losers.”
Mr. Springsteen might be known as “the Boss,” but Mr. Stewart said that “in Washington parlance, I assume he is the Music Czar.”
John Mellencamp opened the musical tributes with a moving, stripped-down version — adding a bit of musical fire at the end — of “Born in the U.S.A.” that he “dedicated to people who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan.” Ben Harper was similarly low-key for “My Father’s House,” and then Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, with her distinctly country voice, got the house rocking with “Glory Days.” Mr. Harper and Miss Nettles then smoldered together for a hot rendition of Mr. Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder also went quiet for “My City of Ruins,” while Sting was backed by a choir for an energetic version of “The Rising.” But the highlight wasn’t that song, which capped the evening. It was Melissa Etheridge, who brought just as much swagger as Mr. Springsteen to a powerful performance of “Born to Run.”
Aretha Franklin, a 1994 Kennedy Center Honoree, gave a sassy speech in tribute to Miss Bumbry, saying young singers today think being a diva means “throwing hissy fits in public places.” She noted that the singer is one of a few who has excelled as both soprano and mezzo-soprano. “She was and she is a citizen of the world,” she declared, echoing the theme of an international America.
The Honors are the highlight of Washington’s cultural calendar, as evidenced by the star power that strode down that carpet before Sunday night’s gala.
“He’s the reason I am who I am today,” actor Richard Kind said of Mr. Brooks’ distinctive style of comedy. Those remarks would be echoed by other stars walking the red carpet, talking about how one — or more — of the nominees influenced them.
The comedian was also a “huge influence” on Mr. Black. “He approaches subject matter you wouldn’t think would be funny. He was the first to deal with racism in a comedy,” said the actor, referring to Mr. Brooks’ film “Blazing Saddles.” Joe Mantegna, meanwhile, said Mr. De Niro really opened up the screen to Italian-Americans.
Mr. Stiller dismissed any critics who think the legendary star of “Raging Bull” should spend less time doing lightweight comedies. “I am a huge fan of Robert De Niro. Any chance to see him in anything is great.”
Miss Etheridge paid tribute to Mr. Springsteen, an artist to whom she felt a kinship growing up in the Midwest: “He encompassed that Americana feel — the cars, the aching and the longing.” Mr. Connick summed up the star-struck atmosphere when he declared, “There isn’t anyone being honored tonight I’m not a fan of.” The Sunday night gala was the culmination of a weekend of events for the five; they received their iconic rainbow-ribbon Honors at a black-tie dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the well-appointed rooms of the State Department.
Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu made her Kennedy Center debut with a breathtaking performance of the aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” It’s the same song Miss Bumbry herself sang in tribute to Marian Anderson during the very first Kennedy Center Honors 32 years ago.
“Only at the Kennedy Center Honors are you going to get ‘Springtime for Hitler’ and Angela Gheorghiu,” Mr. Stevens says with a chuckle.
For the first time, the films highlighting the careers of the honorees were in high-definition.
“It’s a very strong year,” notes Mr. Stevens. “When we started this 32 years ago, I don’t know if we imagined it would have the vitality and richness of honorees that we have. Which in itself, I think, is a tribute to American culture. Think of another country trying to come up with five people every year for over 30 years.”