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Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, violinist Midori and Dick Van Dyke were lauded Sunday night at the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors, which was more of a scaled-down event than in years past amid the pandemic though no less star-studded.
Normally the medallion ceremony is held at the State Department, but this year it was moved to the Kennedy Center’s opera house, with about 120 people spread out at tables on the stage and backstage area looking out at the empty rows of seats. Singer Gloria Estefan hosted the ceremony.
Instead of the usual several-hour black-tie event, followed by dinner, the festivities — which were recorded May 21 — ran just 90 minutes with a limited audience (it aired as a two-hour special Sunday night on CBS). The musical performances and tributes — traditionally the centerpiece of the event — were split into two other nights, with attendees wearing masks in one location, which was enclosed, but not in the other (an outdoor tent).
TV uber-creator and showrunner Shonda Rhimes called dancer-choreographer-director-producer Allen “an inspiration and a symbol of power.”
“She was one of those pivotal forces in the world who made feel like I could be whoever I wanted to be,” said Rhimes, who has worked with the Allen on shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. “Debbie’s vision is to create opportunity for talented people who might otherwise not have been given a chance.”
In tribute to Allen, Tracee Ellis Ross introduced Vanessa Hudgens, who performed the title song from Fame, the 1982-87 TV series on which Allen starred and served as choreographer.
Jackson Browne introduced fellow singer-songwriter Joan Baez, another honoree, noting how folk music singers in the 1960s — like Baez — helped effect changes across the country.
He said he bought the first record he bought with his own money was her second album. “To me, this was completely new music that had a galvanizing effect,” he said. “My friends and I joined hands, demonstrated and sang songs of protest. … Her example has been, from the beginning, one of empowerment.”
For her part, Baez said making a statement with her music was a no-brainer. “Music alone is not enough for me. I never thought about combining music and politics. It just came so naturally to me,” Baez said.
Among the performers honoring Baez was country singer Sturgill Simpson, who sang her song “House of the Rising Sun,” from her debut album.
Julie Andrews introduced her Mary Poppins co-star Van Dyke, comparing him to his character, the chimney sweep Bert. “Like his character Bert in that movie, Dick seems to have found the secret to happiness, and like Bert, Dick is many things: He’s an artist, a one-man band, a profound philosopher, a high-stepping showman and spreader of charm. Good luck does rub off when he shakes hands with you,” she said.
Bryan Cranston called Van Dyke his “boyhood idol and an inspiration in becoming an actor,” while Lin-Manuel Miranda said: “Spend five minutes with Dick Van Dyke, and you’re more alive than you were before. He’s the kind of performing legend you hope to meet one day and say, ‘Thank you for showing us how it should be done.'”
Among the performances, Tony nominee Laura Osnes sang “Jolly Holiday” from Mary Poppins, to the delight of Van Dyke in the audience.
Meanwhile, John Lithgow noted that Midori’s “passion for her art is rivaled only by her commitment to improve lives across the globe,” noting she’s founded several nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping others.
Bette Midler also noted her philanthropic work, inspiring kids in underserved communities to find their own love of music.
Among others, cellist Yo Yo Ma performed a tribute to Midori.
The special saved Brooks’ tribute for last. “There’s country music, rock, gospel, honky-tonk — and then there’s Garth Brooks. Garth is a power hitter, who swung for the fences and shattered the barriers between musical genres forever expanding the vocabulary of country music and changing American culture,” said Bradley Cooper in his introduction, noting that despite all his success, Brooks has “remained the humblest man you’ll ever meet.”
Country singers Jason Aldean noted that Brooks “knocked down a lot of doors” for performers like himself, whom he noted might not be called “traditional,” making it “cool” to mix music with rock and roll. John Travolta noted how Brooks, a close friend of his, had been there for him in “difficult times, always with a strong shoulder, a sympathetic ear and a word of wisdom to help me get through.”
Brooks was feted by a performance from Kelly Clarkson, who sang a stripped-down but powerful version of his hit “The Dance,” as Brooks became visibly emotional in the audience, tearing up while sitting beside wife Trisha Yearwood. At the end of Clarkson’s performance, he jumped out of his seat and gave a cheer. Brooks, clearly moved by the tributes, also got emotional during James Taylor’s rendition of “The River”; inspired the crowd to stand up and clap along with Jimmie Allen’s performance of “Friends in Low Places”; and then got choked up when Gladys Knight came onstage to perform “We Shall Be Free.”
President Biden met with the five Kennedy Center honorees in the Oval Office in April. Although he did not attend the ceremony itself — which had been delayed from December 2020 due to the pandemic — Biden’s appearance was a return of the tradition of the president’s participation in the festivities.
Trump chose to stay away for the entirety of his time in office, to the quiet relief of administrators who otherwise may have faced an uprising from the artists.
The performing arts center is planning a full-scale reopening in September with events slowly ramping up until then. The 44th Kennedy Center Honors program should take place, back on its usual schedule, in December.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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