The Washington Post
44th Kennedy Center Honors
Kennedy Center will also laud opera’s Díaz, actress Midler, SNL’S Michaels
Joni Mitchell, Berry Gordy, Lorne Michaels, Bette Midler and Justino Díaz to be honored.
Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, Motown founder Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, actress Bette Midler and opera singer Justino Díaz will be celebrated at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors when the gala event returns to the Opera House on Dec. 5.
The five honorees will watch from box seats as their peers pay tribute to their careers, and a gala dinner will be held after the performance, the arts center announced Wednesday. CBS will broadcast a two-hour prime-time special on a date still to be determined.
This will be the second Honors hosted this year by the Kennedy Center, which was closed for much of 2020 because of the global pandemic. The 43rd celebration of lifetime achievement in the performing arts, originally scheduled for last December, was presented in May in a hybrid format that featured virtual tributes, taped segments recorded in and around the arts center, and two live concerts performed before limited audiences. CBS aired the special on June 6.
The December event will fuse some of the innovations of the pandemic Honors with the traditions of the past, said Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president and chief executive.
“We are going back to having the Honors on a weekend in December, but I think everything will feel a little different. The show will feel different, the way we build up to the show will feel different. We may capture some of the tributes in a nontraditional format,” Rutter said. “We have gone through the worst crisis in performing arts history. We need to celebrate the artists who have carried us through this time.”
The Kennedy Center anticipates that President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will take part in December’s festivities, Rutter said, although it is too soon to know for certain.
The Bidens hosted the 43rd class of honorees at the White
House in May, embracing the long-standing tradition that had fallen aside during the Trump administration, when several honorees (Cher and Norman Lear among them) were clear that they preferred not to visit the Trump White House. Trump did not attend the annual event during his tenure.
The 2021 Honors looks to move past that, with a big-name lineup, a slightly improved Washington mood and — if the pandemic can be tamed — a perfect occasion to promote the arts center’s 50th anniversary.
“This is the first time I’ve made five phone calls. It never happens like that,” Rutter said. “This one just jelled. We’ve been thinking about it for a while, coming on the 50th anniversary.”
The 44th class of honorees includes several artists with ties to 1971, when the Kennedy Center opened. The arts center is commemorating its 50th anniversary throughout the upcoming season. Mitchell’s landmark album “Blue” also is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Michaels was launching his projects about the same time, Rutter said. Midler brought her “Divine Miss M” tour to the Concert Hall in 1973, while Díaz played a significant role in the Kennedy Center’s opening celebration of performances.
“We have been thinking about [this slate] for a little while, coming on the 50th anniversary,” Rutter said. “There is this connection to the 50th anniversary that makes this even more meaningful. It feels contemporary and yet absolutely a celebration of the milestone year we are having.”
Mitchell’s selection feels especially timely, given the global recognition that “Blue” has received this year. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter’s ethereal voice and unparalleled songwriting have attracted generations of fans and dozens of awards. Her career included 19 studio albums that pushed the boundaries between folk, jazz and pop. Mitchell, 77, has been mostly out of the public eye since she suffered an aneurysm in 2015.
“I’m grateful to the Kennedy Center for bestowing this honor on my work and I look forward to being a part of this prestigious celebration of the arts,” Mitchell said in a statement issued by the Kennedy Center. “I wish my mother and father were alive to see this. It’s a long way from Saskatoon.”
A songwriter, producer and the founder of Motown, Gordy is cred
ited with developing the careers of many well-known artists, including the Temptations, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye.
“My first reaction was joy, disbelief and did I hear that right?” said Gordy, 91. “President Kennedy was one of my favorite heroes. To be honored in his name means the world to me.”
Several artists with whom Gordy has worked, including Robinson, Ross and Richie, have been honored by the Kennedy Center.
“I feel this honor also recognizes the unsung heroes of Motown. They worked hard and laughed and cried and died to make my dream and the Motown legacy a reality,” he said.
Gordy has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Grammys and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and he was the recipient of a 2015 National Medal of Arts. The Kennedy Center Honors, he said, is a special award because it reaches multiple art forms.
“Whether it is music, painting, dance — art makes us feel something, it touches our emotions,” Gordy said. “It not only gives voice to the voiceless, it connects us, transforms us, soothes our souls. Art is a monster.”
Michaels, 76, is a television producer best known for creating the long-running “Saturday Night Live,” the most Emmy-nominated show in history.
“I didn’t know any of this in 1975, but you begin to realize everything in life, in show business, is reinvention. You can’t come back with the same show. You have to find a way to make it fresh,” Michaels said of his 46-year SNL run. “The cast changes, always new people coming in, new writers coming in, new musicians. I think that’s why it’s still around. People know what we stand for, know what to expect.”
The Toronto native began his career in Canada and Los Angeles before coming to New York in 1975. Other producing credits include “30 Rock,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Broadway’s “Mean Girls” and multiple television specials.
The Kennedy Center awarded Michaels the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2004, and in 2016 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's top civilian honor. Two years later, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2013, the Peabody Awards dubbed him “the patron saint of television comedy” when it bestowed a rare individual award.
“It’s the best kind of surprise,” Michaels said of the Honors. “It’s not something you know is going to happen or campaign for. It’s a great night, and one of the reasons it’s a great night is you don’t have the anxiety that comes with having to give a speech.
“And to be with Joni and Bette and Berry Gordy is fantastic,” he added.
Bass-baritone Díaz recalls the thrill of performing in the 1971 world premiere of Ginastera’s “Beatrix Cenci” as part of the multinight opening of the national arts center.
“Old singers and old performers, we live in our memories, and of course that particular memory, of the beautiful, wonderful, brand new center, is deeply embedded,” said Díaz, 81.
Born in Puerto Rico, Díaz attended the University of Puerto Rico and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1963 in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the first of 400 performances that spanned 21 seasons and included the Met’s inaugural performance at Lincoln Center in 1966. The singer performed with the world’s leading opera companies, including La Scala, the Paris Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Royal Opera in London and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. He appeared numerous times with the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra.
“Look at those wonderful people,” he said of his fellow honorees. “It’s exciting because it celebrates art, celebrates show business in general, classical [music], people behind the scenes, creators, people who re-create the works of geniuses throughout the history of theater, of opera, of classical music.
“It is like a partnership in greatness,” he continued. “I have never written anything, like Joni, or thought up things like Lorne Michaels. We get to re-create works of Bach, Verdi, Beethoven, Puccini. It’s a big thrill.”
Midler, 75, is a beloved movie and stage actress and concert performer who is also one of the best-selling female recording artists. In a 60-year career, she has earned multiple Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards and nine American Comedy Awards. She has performed on Broadway in “Hello, Dolly!” and in the movies “The Rose,” “Beaches” and “The First Wives Club.”
The actress appeared in a video tribute to violinist Midori as part of the pandemic Honors this spring. She said she is “grateful beyond words” for the recognition.
“For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans,” Midler said in a statement released by the arts center. “Thank you to the Kennedy Center for recognizing me, and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who put me here.”