The Kennedy Center Honors — with its secret list of performers and over-the-top production values — is a perennial highlight of Washington’s arts scene. But the show’s mystique grew to epic proportions this year, when the pandemic-delayed tribute to five popular artists became a supercharged symbol of the return of the performing arts.
Singer Joan Baez, country musician Garth Brooks, dancer-choreographer-actor Debbie Allen, violinist Midori and actor Dick Van Dyke were in town last month for the 43rd production, a five-day event that included a visit to the White House, a formal medallion ceremony and two live performances May 20 and 22 before the first large crowds that the arts center has hosted in more than a year.
In between those events, the Kennedy Center became a TV soundstage, where more than a dozen tribute performances and segments were taped on location both inside and out. The result of this high-wire act is a two-hour special airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
The Washington Post had exclusive access to the making of the most complicated Honors event in its four-decade history. COVID-related restrictions forced Kennedy Center officials and White Cherry Entertainment producers to break the show into virtual and in-person pieces and stitch them together for broadcast. They also had to entertain two live audiences while keeping the spotlight on the honorees.
“If I had one agenda, it was that the honorees felt that they were really honored,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said after the taping was completed. “The settings felt a little more intimate; the pressure was different. I loved seeing what I saw in each moment, knowing full well some of it was captured elsewhere.”
In fact, almost half of the tributes — seen by 250 high-end donors on May 20 in the Concert Hall and another 250 on May 22 under a tent on the Reach Plaza — were previously taped in the center’s lobbies and theaters, on its terraces and roof, and on the lawn and plazas outside. Some were reprised for the honorees, whose reactions are baked into the show’s history; others were intended only for the live audiences.
That meant performing multiple versions of Van Dyke’s signature tune, “Put on A Happy Face”; two singalongs of Brooks’s hit, “Friends in Low Places”; and a couple of renditions of “Out Here on My Own,” the torch song from Allen’s TV series, “Fame.” Allen’s sister, the actress Phylicia Rashad, and actor-singer Aaron Tveit became ghost hosts, whose duties emceeing the live concerts were replaced by Gloria Estefan for TV. (Rashad returns to introduce her sister’s video.)
“We challenged them to deliver a program worthy of the history and tradition of the Kennedy Center Honors. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for [the honorees],” said Jack Sussman, CBS executive vice president of specials, music, live events and alternative programming. “We don’t want to be the team that under-delivers.”
The TV version is unlike any previous rendition, with an opening featuring interviews with the honorees and behind-the-scenes footage of crews taping the tribute performances as Estefan acknowledges the absence of audiences. The broadcast also shines a spotlight on the arts center itself. From cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s lobby performance to the students dancing outside the Reach to violinist Hilary Hahn in the Concert Hall, TV viewers will see what a gem it is.
Starting in December, Kennedy Center officials and its producers planned the event on “parallel paths” that predicted what conditions might be in the spring, Sussman said. Early models devised ways to shoot completely remote, without some honorees attending. When it became likely that small crowds would be allowed, the producers pivoted to include two shorter shows for small audiences. The event raised $3.5 million in donations, which was more than expected but significantly less than the typical $6.5 million.
“We adapted creatively,” Sussman said. “As the months went on, and the situation changes, you had to go with the flow. You had to challenge yourself and the team to be creative in the moment.”
The production was also complicated by its multiple locations, some with natural light that changed as the day went on, some with ambient noise that could not be controlled, Sussman said. As an example, he pointed to the multiple-camera shot on the morning of May 18, when students from Midori’s Orchestra Residencies Program and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles performed together outside the Reach. Under a blue sky with Washington in the background, the students performed a medley that ended with the dancers kicking and spinning in the reflecting pool
It was as big a splash as it could be — without an audience.
“We pulled back to show the crew, hear them reacting,” Sussman said. “You give the audience what’s real. You don’t fake it.”
Inside the 2,465-seat Concert Hall on May 20, Thomas Wilkins, music director of the Omaha Symphony and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, limbered up the 38 members of the National Symphony Orchestra onstage with a melody that gave each honoree a nudge — some Mozart for Midori, some “Fame” for Allen, some Garth for Garth.
“As President [John] Kennedy would say, we wanted to do this not because it was easy but because it was hard,” said Kennedy Center Board Chairman David Rubenstein from the stage in his opening remarks. He elicited a burst of applause upon specifying that the president, first lady and vice president had spent close to an hour with the honorees and expressed enthusiastic support for the Honors specifically and the Kennedy Center in general. What might have been boilerplate acknowledgment felt newly charged with unspoken significance. Former president Donald Trump had broken with tradition by not once attending the Honors or hosting the honorees at the White House.
Tveit introduced the nominees, who smiled over their masks from the upper boxes. And he smiled a bit wistfully, too, disclosing to the audience that the night’s performances — a suite of tributes to Midori, and individual salutes to the other four honorees — were the first he’d seen in person in 14 months.
“While some of these performances may not be exactly what you see [later] on TV,” he said, “they’re live, and they’re just for you.” Ecstatic applause followed as the same realization seemed to settle over everyone in the room.
Classical luminaries took the stage in a procession of powerhouse performances to a rapt Midori. The fast-rising young violinist Randall Goosby nimbly took on the third movement of Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” with impossible speed and control. The duo of Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony performed Pablo de Sarasate’s “Navarra,” as well as a run-through of the second movement of Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins in D minor,” marking Midori’s lifelong love of the composer.
And to close the Midori programming, violinist Hilary Hahn offered a breathtaking account of the third movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” — which managed to avoid altogether the broken strings that launched Midori into the limelight when she fatefully played it under the composer’s baton at Tanglewood at the age of 14.
The program then shifted to feting the other honorees. Tony-winning singer and actress Anika Noni Rose lighted up every corner of “Out Here on My Own” with her soaring voice, Tveit offered an oddly somber run-through of “Put on a Happy Face” and country star Sturgill Simpson gave a brusque and brooding rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” as a gift to Joan Baez (who featured the song on her 1960 solo debut album). James Taylor, a 2016 honoree, had Garth Brooks out of his seat and fanning his cowboy hat through his version of Brooks’s “The River,” and Wilkins fired up the orchestra one last time for what turned into a closing singalong of “Friends in Low Places.”
On May 21, the on-location shooting continued right up until the evening’s formal presentation of the medallions. Estefan filmed her intros and outros in the late afternoon, forcing security to stop cars, pedestrians and bicyclists to keep them out of view. Yo-Yo Ma slipped in at around 6 p.m. to tape a tribute to Midori; at 7 p.m. he performed at the start of the medallion ceremony, which Estefan hosted on the Opera House stage.
The final performance, held outdoors on May 22, began with the honorees taking center stage for the first of many standing ovations. They moved to their front-row, socially distanced seats, backed by about 250 guests, most casually dressed because of the outdoor setting and a show-time temperature of 84 degrees. Many shed their masks as the almost two-hour show began.