Kennedy Centre Honours star-studded gala returns

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Honouree US singer and actress Bette Midler (centre) acknowledges applause as she attends the 44th Kennedy Centre Honours at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC on Sunday. AFP

Stevie Wonder headlined a star-studded gala on December 5 saluting Motown founder Berry Gordy, folk legend Joni Mitchell and other recipients of the Kennedy Centre Honours, one of America’s highest arts awards – with the president back in the audience.

Glitzy red carpet events are rare in the US capital, but on Sunday, Hollywood A-listers and Washington politicos flocked to celebrate the careers of Gordy, Mitchell, actress-singer Bette Midler, operatic bass-baritone Justino Diaz and Lorne Michaels, the creator of legendary comedy show Saturday Night Live.

Joe Biden and his wife Jill sat with the honourees in the Kennedy Centre opera house for the gala, marking the first time a sitting president had attended the event in five years – and the Democratic leader earned a rousing ovation.

Donald Trump did not attend during his presidency, after several of the honoured artists threatened to boycott the gala in his first year in office if he were present.

“It is quite nice to see the presidential box once again being occupied,” comedian and past honouree David Letterman told the audience to cheers.

Wonder – one of the many acts discovered by Gordy – was the final act in the four-hour event to be broadcast on US network CBS on December 22 – and, due to the magic of TV, he started over when he was tripped up by technical difficulties.

But the audience – vaccinated and masked under Covid-19 protocols – didn’t mind the short delay, and danced along to a selection of Wonder’s biggest hits including Superstition and Higher Ground.

Smokey Robinson, who was discovered by Gordy when he was just a teenager, sang a song he wrote especially for his mentor and friend.

Wonder and Robinson were not the only megawatt talents on hand: Paul Simon serenaded Michaels, Brandi Carlile honoured Mitchell and soprano Denyce Graves was among the singers saluting Diaz with excerpts from Carmen and Faust.

A who’s who of Saturday Night Live stars – from Jimmy Fallon to Amy Poehler to current cast members Colin Jost, Michael Che and Pete Davidson – took the stage to pay tribute to Michaels.

Sunday’s gala was in fact the Kennedy Centre’s second set of honours this year, after the 2020 gala was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In May, the centre held a more subdued series of smaller, socially distanced events and tributes for the 43rd class of honourees, which included folk icon Joan Baez and Hollywood legend Dick Van Dyke.

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US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden attend the 44th Kennedy Centre Honours at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC on Sunday. AFP

Though some of those events were held in person at the performing arts complex, which serves as a living monument to slain president John F Kennedy, Biden did not attend.

The honourees

Mitchell, 78, is revered as one of the top songwriters of her generation, with hits including Big Yellow Taxi and Both Sides Now.

Gordy, who just turned 92, revolutionised music with his iconic Motown Records label, launched in 1959 after he borrowed $800 from his family.

He kickstarted the careers of an array of superstars such as Wonder, Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.

“I think I’m in a dream . . . and it’s a wonderful dream,” Gordy told reporters on the red carpet.

Michaels, 77, has mentored scores of comedians who got their big breaks on Saturday Night Live, the much-lauded sketch show that has been on the air for more than 40 years.

“He gave me the chance to play in his playground,” said Kenan Thompson, who is now the longest-tenured SNL cast member.

Midler, 76, is a showbiz legend with a string of films (The Rose, Beaches), albums and shows (Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!) on her resume.

During his decades-long career in opera, the 81-year-old Diaz – a bass-baritone born in Puerto Rico – performed on the world’s great stages, from the Metropolitan Opera to La Scala, alongside legends such as Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price.