The 2009 Kennedy Center Honors

The Kennedy Center Honors were aired last night and what an honor it was to watch people I admired be admired by other people I admire! The 2009 honorees were (in alpha-order) comedy legend Mel Brooks, pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry, acting legend Robert De Niro and singer/songwriter extraordinaire Bruce Springsteen. Or, as Caroline Kennedy called them (in sitting order), “a piano virtuoso from the California hills whose inspired rhythms made him America’s herald of a new age of jazz; a good fella from the mean streets of New York who redefined acting and made movie audiences an offer they couldn’t refuse; the little girl from a St. Louis church choir who could hit high C and became the diva we cheered in the houses of grand opera; a mischievous boy from Brooklyn who provoked billions of laughs by walking loudly and carrying a big schtick; and a rocker from the Jersey Shore who composed his own musical universe and – across America and the world – became The Boss.”

The presentation of the honors took place on December 6, 2010, and was preceded by a reception for the honorees, hosted by POUTS, FLOTUS and VPOTUS and as well as a luncheon hosted by the State Department. (Secretary Clinton was on hand to hob-nob with the talented bunch.)

Meryl Streep kicked off the honoring by talking about her experience working with and knowing Robert De Niro; a montage and other actors followed, including testimony from Martin Scorsese and Edward Norton. Next up was Dave Brubeck, whose video was introduced by Herbie Hancock, who, as it happened, I saw in concert when I went with my brother and parents to a Dave Matthews Band concert over ten years ago at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre (or whatever it’s called now!) Several accomplished jazz musicians were on hand to play Brubeck's compositions. Among the musicians were Brubeck's four sons. To watch Brubeck's eyes light up and his smile go wide is to know joy. His sons then proceeded to play Happy Birthday to their father, who turned 89 that day.

Then came the task of honoring Mel Brooks, a writer, composer, actor, director, producer and legend. On hand to introduce the segment was his Show of Shows buddy, and legend in his own right, Carl Reiner. Next up was Frank Langella who segued into a musical tribute to Brooks, replete with performances of memorable songs from movies Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and History of the World Part 1, and Broadway shows Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Reading the write up about the show on the Kennedy Center website, I learned that some of the performance had been cut from the telecast. For example, the article says that Jane Krakowski sang “When You Got It, Flaunt It,” from The Producers but this was not televised. A number that was televised, though, was Glee star and Broadway vet Matthew Morrison singing the Mel Brooks standard, “Springtime for Hitler”. Dude brought it. He’s never worked with Brooks but Matthew can sing and he can definitely dance. His appearance was most certainly welcome. To finish the number, Matthew Broderick came out to sing a revised version of “’Til Him,” also from The Producers, and of course the “him” Broderick (and eventually everyone) was singing about was Mel. When the number finished, you saw all these artists looking up and smiling at a palpably touched Brooks. It’s sweet moments like these that make these sometimes schticky productions totally worth it.

After Mel Brooks was honored, it was on to opera singer Grace Bumbry. She was honored by none other than Aretha Franklin, who was an honoree in 1994. Franklin recounted the story of Bumbry performing at the first Honors ceremony in honor of Marian Anderson, and pointed out the lovely poignancy of Grace returning to the Kennedy Center 31 years later to be honored for her own accomplishments.

And then it was time to honor The Boss. Kicking off the awesomeness was New Jersey-born Jon Stewart. Pretty much any time I can watch something that includes both Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen I’m a happy lady. This was no exception. Stewart conceded that he and The Boss, at first blush, don’t have much in common – but they are both New Jerseyites and that, Stewart contended, meant a lot. The funnyman then told us what he believed: That Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. At this revelation, Bruce exploded with laughter and President Obama leaned over to give him daps. Stewart then went on to say, “I believe that Bruce Springsteen is an unprecedented combination of lyrical eloquence, musical mastery and sheer unbridled, unadulterated joy.” I’m a believer, too! After Stewart’s speech, the musical tribute magic began. Several venerable musicians graced the stage to offer their renditions of Springsteen classics such as “I’m on Fire” (Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles), “My City of Ruins” (Eddie Vedder) and “The Rising” (Sting). It was moving, to say the least. And the audience's reaction was a tribute to the truly awesome power of music. Everyone in the audience was into it - I mean everyone! Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the Obamas and even Dave Brubeck were all dancing in their seats - in the beginning - and then by the end of Sting and a gospel choir's beautiful take on The Rising, everyone was on their feet pointing to and praising a sixty year old kid who likes rock and roll. As with Mel Brooks, The Boss looked genuinely moved by the adoration being poured over him. Flanked by his wife and E Street Band member, Patti Scialfa, and Michelle Obama and her husband, Springsteen was clearly and deeply appreciative of the appreciation. The Boss is so boss that even while tearing up and wearing a rainbow sash, he still looked cooler than any other rocker out there. Keep going, Boss – 60 is just a starting point.

Check out these photos of the men and women as they walked the red carpet en route to the award ceremony. (And while you’re looking, please note just how good Matthew Morrison looks in a tux!)