Kennedy Center Honors: Off-script moments energize the stately affair

Kennedy Center Honors: Off-script moments energize the stately affair

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It was a giddy night in Washington. Well, a giddy weekend.

The Kennedy Center Honors is always a stately affair, and Sunday evening was no different with President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and second gentleman Doug Emhoff in attendance.

But this year a chaotic energy pumped though its veins. Being honored in the arts center’s 2,364-seat Opera House: comedian Billy Crystal, opera soprano Renée Fleming, Bee Gees singer-songwriter Barry Gibb, hip-hop pioneer and actress Queen Latifah, and singer (and legendary tweeter) Dionne Warwick.

Everything that’s usually on the menu was present. Hair-raising musical performances. Touching tributes from past honorees. Biographical videos. Amusing bits. Herbie Hancock.

While it was lovely as always, the air was charged. Spontaneous, off-script, offbeat moments elevated the night. Like when the entire crowd of politicos and arts enthusiasts thrust their hands back and forth and swayed to a hip-hop medley honoring Latifah.

Two such unplanned moments came from Robert De Niro, honoring his friend and “Analyze This” co-star Billy Crystal. At one point, he sang a version of “It Had to Be You” but lost the words halfway through. He began improvising, singing in melody: “I’m f—ing it up, but it’s okay!” The crowd roared, almost as much as when De Niro said that Crystal, at 75, is “six years from being the perfect age to be elected president” — and Biden responded by standing, smiling, waving and pointing at the actor.

Rita Moreno also had some thoughts on age. While introducing Latifah, she couldn’t make out the words on the teleprompter at the back of the room, instead having to read from a piece of paper. “Isn’t getting old so f—ing boring?” she announced. The audience enthusiastically disagreed.

Otherwise, it was business as usual and business was booming.

As always, the evening is composed of five segments, each running about 20 minutes and each dedicated to an honoree, with friends, family and creative partners celebrating them in various ways.

For Warwick, the night’s first honoree, that meant booming covers of her songs. Mickey Guyton and the Spinners joined to perform “Then Came You.” Cynthia Erivo earned a standing ovation with a tremendous version of “Alfie” as projected stars twinkled overhead. Gladys Knight, a 2022 honoree, sang “Say a Little Prayer.”

And, for a dash of laughter, Ego Nwodim — who impersonates Warwick on “Saturday Night Live” — spoke about the time Warwick appeared with her on the show. Their SNL skit ended with a duet of “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” and Nwodim, understandably nervous, wanted to repeatedly rehearse the song. Warwick had other ideas: “I know the song.”

Crystal was honored by friends Rob Reiner, Bob Costas, Jay Leno and De Niro. First, though, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performed his version of a Billy Crystal Oscars-style medley, singing about the comedian’s career to the tune of “My Favorite Things.”

Meg Ryan, Crystal’s co-star in the 1989 rom-com “When Harry Met Sally …,” spoke in front of an onstage replica of New York City’s Katz’s Deli, where her character memorably moaned in one scene. “I’m surprised they let me back into this place,” she said. Later, she gently ribbed Crystal: “I’ve never been around anyone who makes faking an orgasm easier.”

For his part, though, De Niro may have had both the unscripted and scripted laugh line of the night, when he said the country “honors the O.G. Billy Crystal on this 50th anniversary of hip-hop.”

Queen Latifah’s family — including her father and sister, her best friends, a couple of her aunts, an uncle and a cousin — appeared in a video. “That ‘Equalizer’ show is just the bomb,” said one aunt.

The rest of Latifah’s segment — introduced by 5-year-old rapper VanVan, featured performances by MC Lyte, Monie Love, Yo-Yo, D-Nice, Rapsody, the Clark Sisters and the very choir her late mother had sung in — had the Kennedy Center audience alternatively swaying in their seats and then giving up chair-dancing altogether as old man rhythm jumped into their shoes.

Perhaps the most touching moment of her segment, though, was when Missy Elliott said that as teenager living in what she had always been told was “a man’s world,” there was Latifah, calling herself Queen, and unapologetically insisting on “Ladies First.”

Music continued to dominate as the evening wore down, especially in the tribute to Fleming.

“Your sonic DNA lives inside of me,” said actor and singer Tituss Burgess, who joined actress Christine Baranski and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel,” in which Fleming made her Broadway debut in 2018.

Singer and actress Dove Cameron, who played Fleming’s daughter in a London production of “The Light in the Piazza,” performed the musical’s title track and said she’s “never not astounded by the quality of human that Renée is.”

Closing out the evening was the tribute to Gibb, which kicked off with a star-studded video with the likes of Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Barbra Streisand and Paul McCartney.

The band Little Big Town had the audience clapping along to the Bee Gees’ “Lonely Days.” Singer Michael Buble complimented Gibb’s famously luxurious hair and sang his dreamy version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” the song that helped launch Buble’s career. Broadway star and singer Ben Platt performed a funky “Nights on Broadway.”

And if the energy had begun to wane — (it hadn’t) — actress and singer Ariana DeBose fed the crowd one last uncut jolt with a raucous medley of Gibb’s biggest hits, ending in a hurricane of confetti.

“Stayin’ Alive,” indeed.

All that giddiness really began at a Saturday night dinner at the State Department, where the honorees received their medallions.

The evening included the usual sweet platitudes about the power and importance of art. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed how the performing arts bind humanity. “We could use more connection, we could use more empathy, we could use more understanding in the world around us,” he said. David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center, later added, “Art is not a form propaganda. Art is a from of truth.”

Moreno took emceeing to a new level, telling Crystal that his medallion was crooked (“Just like this town, sometimes,” he replied), flirting with Gibb (“You sexy creature,” she yelled), and occasionally (and proudly) going fully off-script.

Fleming sang “Happy Birthday” to novelist Ann Patchett, who was toasting her. Gibb assured the audience that he’s not a bow-tie guy and that that thing was coming off ASAP. Latifah began her speech by saying, “Hey, Rob Reiner!”

Crystal teared up. Warwick teared up. Latifah teared up. Moreno teared up.

Let’s save some time: Pretty much everyone with working tear ducts who spoke teared up.

Even giddy weekends need a dash of earnestness.

Emily Yahr contributed to this report.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. Eastern on CBS and stream on Paramount Plus.

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