WASHINGTON - From a slew of divine M's to operatic royalty, the Kennedy Center Honors feted a new crop of artistic greatness.
Returned to the stately Kennedy Center Opera House with an audience for the first time since 2019, the 44th ceremony Sunday honored a music-heavy class of Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, Motown founder Berry Gordy and opera great Justino Díaz, as well as "Saturday Night Live" mastermind Lorne Michaels.
Another tradition was also restored for the first time since 2016 - the attendance of the President of the United States.
In addition to President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff situated in the presidential box, a mix of politicians from both parties - Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich among them - mingled with a spate of entertainment luminaries.
David Letterman served as the emcee, quipping at the start, "It feels like there's going to be a show, doesn't it? I wish I had a show." A heady list of surprise guests were enlisted to pay homage to the honorees, including Stevie Wonder, Brandi Carlile, Paul Simon, Billy Porter, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Chita Rivera and nearly a dozen "Saturday Night Live" cast members past and present.
A spirit of unity and liveliness - as well as gratefulness for the ceremony's return - pervaded the nearly four-hour taping, which will air Dec. 22 on CBS.
The audience of about 2,200 - which unabashedly sang and danced through Wonder's finale of "Higher Ground" - was required to show proof of vaccination to attend (about 1,500 of those attending other Kennedy Center Honors events also had to provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the show).
Here are some key moments from the event.
"Saturday Night Live" mastermind Lorne Michaels waves as he arrives at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. Seated at left is folk music legend Joni Mitchell. In a video clip showing the honorees at a White House reception earlier Sunday, President Biden joked to Michaels, "He's tried out seven guys to play me - finally, it's time for me to say something about him."
Plenty of people had much to say about the 77-year-old TV pioneer, including pal Steve Martin in an uproarious introduction. "When I was little, I used to get dressed up to play honoring Lorne Michaels at the Kennedy Center," he said, leading the way for a parade of familiar "Saturday Night Live" names to take the stage. Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon donned Blues Brothers suits to riff on Michaels and Seth Myers discussed the origins of "Weekend Update."
Several alumni of the popular "SNL" segment, including Kevin Nealon on his '90s-era set reprised their roles. Myers and Amy Poehler unfurled a spate of jokes about Michaels, while current "Weekend Update" hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che leaned edgier with jokes about crack, race and the president falling asleep.
The always convivial Jimmy Fallon explored the musical guests that have also become an "SNL" staple before introducing the singer who hosted the second episode of the show in 1975, the currently retired Simon. While his "America" sounded feeble, it was nonetheless heartfelt as he sang for his longtime friend.
Film director Cameron Crowe called her 1971 "Blue" album, "a watershed moment in truthful songwriting." Fellow Canadian Dan Levy said that, "her voice, her words, her art will continue to shift molecules for generations." Onetime love Graham Nash pre-taped a narration of Mitchell's life, noting her "crystalline soprano." And a quartet of genre-diverse female vocalists honored her in song.
Norah Jones crooned "The Circle Game" from behind a piano, while British singer Ellie Goulding - an interesting choice who appeared giddy about her assignment - offered "Big Yellow Taxi," singing in front of backdrop of Mitchell's artistic album covers.
Carlile, a longtime protégé of the 78-year-old Mitchell,was spellbinding as she played piano - backed by the Kennedy Center Orchestra - during "River" ("I love you, Joni, you magical thing!" she yelled toward Mitchell's honoree box at song's end). And power-lunged Americana-rocker Brittany Howard showcased a restrained, husky vocal for the devastating "Both Sides Now," with former Kennedy Center honoree Herbie Hancock accompanying her on piano.
On the red carpet before the ceremony, Judy Collins, who recorded the first version of Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" in 1967, said the two have remained "friends along the way." "She's brought so much beauty into the world," Collins said.
The Puerto Rican native, 81, renowned for his bass-baritone, was praised by Rivera for being "uncompromising in his standards," as she also divulged Díaz's secret fondness for singing disco songs.
Díaz's induction at the Kennedy Center held additional meaning - he inaugurated the Opera House in 1971. His legacy also extends to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he became the first Puerto Rican to perform after winning a contest in 1963.
His daughters Natascia Diaz and Katya Diaz kicked off his tribute with "En Mi Viejo San Juan," before Grace Bumbry, also a former Kennedy Center honoree, talked about their shared professional history, particularly in "Carmen."
Singers Christian Van Horne, Ariana Wehr, Hannah Shea and Denyce Graves performed the "Toreador Song" from "Carmen," while soprano Ana María Martínez, positioned on a set adorned with red velvet curtains and a candlelit bedroom, offered "Ave Maria" from Verdi's "Otello" (Díaz played Iago in the 1986 Franco Zeffirelli film adaption).
The Divine Miss M, 76, not only received kudos from Hawn, who called her "a superpower goddess," fellow New Yorker Scarlett Johansson and "Beaches" co-star Barbara Hershey, who reminisced about their 33-year friendship. She also received a this-is-your-life narration from Adele, who said in her voice over that Midler, in her opinion, "is the greatest performer who ever lived."
The trio of Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein and Kate Baldwin warbled through "Friends," followed by opera and Broadway star Kelli O'Hara presenting a sweetly orchestral rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Even Melissa Manchester, an early Midler comrade in the Barry Manilow days at the Continental Baths in New York, appeared to revisit Midler's ribald performances and staggering film career.
But the showstopper was Billy Porter, resplendent in a black feathered cape, platform boots and a sequined pantsuit, belting a boisterous "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." His tribute also included "Love is on the Way" and "From a Distance," which, unexpectedly, became an audience clap-along.
Lifelong friend Smokey Robinson, whose career Gordy launched with The Miracles and "Shop Around" in 1960, serenaded Gordy, 92, with a tender ode to friendship and told the audience, "we had a leader who wanted everything to be the best."
Oprah Winfrey handled the narration of Gordy's life story, including the "62 years and counting" of Motown Records, his discovery and elevation of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and numerous other R&B/soul singers; his historic "TCB" TV events; and his film production of movies including "Lady Sings the Blues."
Some of the cast of the current Broadway hit, "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations" bopped across the stage in a tribute performance, while Andra Day, in a thigh-baring gold lamé dress, channeled Billie Holiday - as she did for her award-winning Hulu movie - for "God Bless This Child."
The most powerful feat of the event came when Wonder was shown on a video tribute to Gordy before the staging shifted and the R&B icon was perched behind his piano on stage.
A technical glitch caused a delay of several minutes, but the audience was patient, knowing that it would be worth the wait.
A percussion-filled "My Cherie Amour" prompted a singalong of "la la la's," followed by Wonder scooting to his keyboard for "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" - his voice robust on a long-held note - and "Superstition," which prompted the quartet in the presidential box to stand and dance.
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