The Kennedy Center Honors are lifetime achievement awards for performing artists and an annual love-in for the entertainment world. It’s also a moment for the staid Washington D.C. social scene to bask in the glow of non-political superstars. This year’s honorees, celebrated Sunday night, were Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins and Meryl Streep.
The Honors, in their 34th year, were hosted by JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy (after many years with Walter Cronkite at the helm). It’s one of those occasions that forces odd pairings, where you can find the House Minority Leader sitting next to the CEO of CBS, Senators sitting next to stars from Sex and the City — and presidential hopefuls (like Newt Gingrich) clapping alongside the man currently in office. “Everybody sings Neil Diamond songs,” Obama said at a reception earlier that day, “no matter how many drinks they’ve had.”
Like all award shows, the Kennedy Center honors were designed to show off as much star power as possible. Anne Hathaway and Kevin Kline performed a musical number for Streep. James Taylor sang to Yo-Yo Ma. Patti LuPone belted one out in honor of Barbara Cook. But it also emphasized variety and geography. R&B artist Raphael Saadiq performed Neil Diamond songs. And Bill Cosby, introducing Sonny Rollins, told anecdotes of going from Athens to Hong Kong and hearing the jazzman’s improvisations wafting out of cafes. The show was a tacit argument that America’s greatness has affected the world at large, that we can build an empire of sorts with just a man and a tenor sax. And if that was the thesis, the sub-points could go like this:
*Streep represented the American film industry. A montage of her work, from The Deer Hunter to The Devil Wears Prada, ended with her as Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming film The Iron Lady. In 2003, Streep broke Katharine Hepburn’s record of 13 Academy Award nominations and now has a sweet 16.
*Rollins represented American music. “America is supposed to be about all people, every creed and mind,” he said on the red carpet before the show. “It’s the home of jazz. It’s where we started … It’s a peaceful expression … We need that now, and jazz represents something people love. So let’s all be one America.” He mentioned how cantankerous the world has been this year, and he tried to point people toward harmony through melodies. Many fellow attendees meanwhile said he was the man they were happiest to see honored, finally, at age 81.
*Cook represented the American songbook. One diva after another, all clad in gold, rolled out to sing for her, remembering the belle’s roles in musicals like The Music Man and Candide, traveling back through her years on stages from Broadway to Carnegie Hall to the Met. At the end of their tribute, many women of a certain age had tears streaming down their cheeks. On the carpet before the show, Cook gave advice to the young artist. “Try to really understand and believe that you are enough. Because it’s always you who we want, the authentic you,” she told TIME. “We don’t want who you think you ought to be or who you ought to sound like … We are drawn to people who are authentic.” Of Cook, LuPone said, “She was a blond goddess with an operatic voice … singing those roles eight times a week. She had the pipes, she had the discipline, she had the desire, and she still does.”
*Ma represented America in the world. A French native who grew up in the U.S., the world’s most celebrated cellist performed for JFK at age seven and spent his later career exploring music in its native settings across the globe. Host Caroline Kennedy called the prodigy our “cellist in chief” (perhaps remembering his appearance at Obama’s inauguration). And satirical newsman Stephen Colbert introduced Ma’s portion of the tribute saying that “tonight we cellobrate.” Colbert recounted the seemingly endless forms Ma has made his way through: “solo, chamber, orchestral, symphonies, sonatas, concertos, double concertos, venti double-decaf concertos.” As well as genres: tango, bluegrass, folk, jazz. “What’s left, Yo-Yo?” Colbert asked. “Yo-Yo doesn’t just play the cello. He rocks it.”
The only point when Ma appeared more delighted than during Colbert’s speech (and he was delighted) was during the homage to Diamond, the night’s American songwriter — a man with 39 Top 10 singles. Raphael Saadiq ran through chirpy tunes like “She’s Got the Way to Move Me.” Country singer Jennifer Nettles came next, and then Lionel Richie, both dipping into the slower stuff. Then came the one everyone was waiting for: “Sweet Caroline.” The man to sing it? The joyous Smokey Robinson.
Ma threw out the biggest double thumbs up his arms could handle as Robinson reached the first chorus. Then the others joined him. Richie. Nettles. Even Caroline Kennedy (whom the song was named after) took part in the swaying mass. The curtain raised to reveal a full chorus dressed as Red Sox fans, a nod to those who listen to “Sweet Caroline” as their theme song at Fenway Park. At this point, the crowd took to their feet. Ma became downright rapturous, clapping, reeling. A beaming Streep sang beside him and Michelle Obama, on Ma’s other side, shot a look at her husband that said, “I know we’re the First Couple and all, but can you believe we’re watching this?” Good times, indeed.
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 27th on CBS.