Composer Philip Glass. Country music star Reba McEntire. Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Singer-actress-icon Cher. “Hamilton” — well, the four people most responsible for “Hamilton,” but, basically, just “Hamilton.”
Is this lineup, announced on Wednesday, the weirdest and most polyglot in the four-decade history of the Kennedy Center Honors?
Not really. How about 1991: country legend Roy Acuff, movie musical tunesmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the dancing Nicholas brothers, Fayard and Harold, actor Gregory Peck, and orchestra conductor Robert Shaw? Or 2008: Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp, and the Who?
Actually, the following year, 2009, might take the prize for jostling outsize personas: Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen — and mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry.
The Kennedy Center Honors hold a curious spot in America’s popular culture. They’re tonier than the Oscars, handed out in the autumn years of a career and celebrating an entire body of work rather than an individual performance. They carry less weight than the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which gets awarded to deserving Americans in all walks of life, but they’re better known to the public than the National Medal of Arts, which has been awarded only since 1984 and not at all since Donald Trump took office.
The Kennedy Center Honors aren’t all that old, either, to tell the truth: The first gala was produced by George Stevens Jr. in 1978 and aired on CBS, with initial honors going to singer Marian Anderson, actor-dancer Fred Astaire, choreographer George Balanchine, pianist Arthur Rubenstein, and songwriter Richard Rodgers.
They’re a local phenomenon with a national status. Consisting of a luncheon at the Kennedy Center, a State Department dinner hosted by the secretary of state, a White House reception, and a gala performance back at the center, the honors are really a D.C. social event that leaves a heavy imprint on the country’s larger cultural consciousness. (The White House reception was canceled last year after several honorees declined to attend, and, after skipping the 2017 event, President and Mrs. Trump have yet to announce whether they’ll take part in the upcoming festivities.)
Every year there’s a collective murmur of acknowledgment when the new honorees are announced in the summer and then another round of assent in December, when the gala performance is staged and aired (this year, December 2 and 26, respectively). But how many people actually watch the show, which, to be fair, features other artists performing for the guests of honor? And how often do we take the time to appreciate this annual appreciation?
That may have something to do with the honors’ wide net. Chosen by a Kennedy Center executive committee from recommendations submitted by the public and a special advisory group made up of past winners and other artists, the awards cover music, dance, theater, opera, films, and TV. They generally go to people whose most fertile creative years are behind them, but not always — and not this year.
The fact that the creators of “Hamilton” are being honored reflects a number of things, intentional and otherwise: The center’s stated mission to, as its president Deborah Rutter told The Washington Post this week, “celebrate greatness that has already been achieved and greatness that is happening now,” and maybe also the fact that the acclaimed musical is currently the hottest ticket in D.C. — at the Kennedy Center.
“Hamilton” is the first work of art to itself be selected, and its four primary creators — composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, 38; director Thomas Kail, 40; music director Alex Lacamoire, 43; and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, 48 — are the youngest ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
The other new honorees are hardly sitting still, though. Reba McEntire won her first Grammy in 20 years this past January. Philip Glass has a new solo piano work out and has spent the last year on an 80th birthday concert tour. Wayne Shorter is working on a jazz opera with bassist-composer Esperanza Spalding. And Cher has recently descended back to our astral plane in the movie “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” and will soon see a musical based on her life open on Broadway.
For onlookers, figuring out who’s still alive, deserving, and not yet awarded remains an addictive parlor game. (The four-decade roster of actual winners can be found at www.kennedy-center.org/pages/specialevents/honors/#history.) My personal to-do list would have to include Gene Hackman, Joni Mitchell, Denzel Washington, Bette Midler, Patti Smith, Diane Keaton, Spike Lee, and Bill Murray. New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and documentarian Fred Wiseman. Stan Lee and Berry Gordy, two men without whom the 1960s explosion in comics and popular music would look and sound vastly different.
In the category of It’ll Never Happen But It Should: cartoonist R. Crumb, director David Lynch, actress Jane Fonda, and rock ’n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis. If Philip Glass gets a Kennedy Center Honor, so should fellow Minimalist pioneer Steve Reich (and throw in John Adams and pioneer’s pioneer Terry Riley while you’re at it).
Mike Stoller of rock’s Lieber and Stoller and Sam Moore of R&B’s Sam & Dave. Francis Ford Coppola on the strength of the first two ”Godfather” movies alone. Choreographer Mark Morris and jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. And can we get Olivia de Havilland back over from Paris while the 102-year-old Hollywood icon is still alive?
That’s not even counting the Brits — yes, the Kennedy Center honors more than Americans — or artists from other countries, which would add Ray Davies of the Kinks, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, actress Sophia Loren, director Agnes Varda, and giant musical throbbing brain Brian Eno to my own list.
And, hell, if the Center really wants to court the youth vote, I won’t kick if rocker Jeff Tweedy (50), director Richard Linklater (57), actress Cate Blanchett (49), late-night host Jon Stewart (55), and comedian Dave Chappelle (44) somehow find their way into the mix.
Let’s hold off on Beyoncé (36) for now, though. At least for one more album.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.