UPDATED, with details on performances: Marking the return of the involvement of the White House in celebrating the Kennedy Center Honors, President Joe Biden taped a special message for the ceremony in which he said that the role of artists is “as important as ever” as the country recovers from the Covid-19 crisis.
In the video, Biden said that he and First Lady Jill Biden met at the White House with this year’s honorees “recognizing how art touches the soul of America.”
“n this year of profound loss and pain, of repair and renewal, the artists’ vision is as important as ever,” Biden said.
He added, “In the search for greater meaning in our lives, we have discovered and rediscovered the power of art in every form.”
CBS is airing the taped ceremony on Sunday at 8 PM ET/PT.
Biden met with the five Kennedy Center honorees — Joan Baez, Midori, Garth Brooks, Debbie Allen and Dick Van Dyke — in the Oval Office last month. Although he did not attend the ceremony itself, which was taped over several days in late May and before a smaller crowd because of Covid-19 protocols, Biden’s appearance was a return of the tradition of the president’s participation in the festivities.
His predecessor, Donald Trump, canceled the tradition of a White House reception with the honorees and also skipped the ceremony at the Kennedy Center. In 2017, some of the honorees that year, including Norman Lear, said that they planned to skip the White House reception in protest of the Trump White House’s call to zero out federal funding for the arts.
Those draconian budget cuts never happened, but Biden’s White House recently proposed an increase in funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of his supporters also have proposed elevating the arts into a White House office, in a structure similar to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In his taped remarks, Biden and that “as part of the great tradition in our country, Jill and I will continue to celebrate the critical role artists play in our nation.
Biden said, “We look forward to working with the art and cultural organizations in the big cities, small towns and rural communities, to make art more accessible to people at every age and every background, to lift up more voices and stories, to remember what President Kennedy believed, that in serving their vision of the truth, artists best serve the nation.”
The ceremony was delayed from its usual date, on the first weekend of December, because of the pandemic. The event took place in person, but it looked much different than in previous years as the Kennedy Center implemented social distancing and other safety measures. For example, performances that would have taken place on the main Opera House stage instead were prerecorded around the center.
In the tribute to Allen, Vanessa Hudgens and a team of dancers performed Fame on the Kennedy Center’s outdoor terraces and main driveway. Shonda Rhimes paid tribute to her in a taped message, highlighting Allen’s work as a director of Grey’s Anatomy.
Jackson Browne and Tom Morello taped tributes to Baez, while Sturgill Simpson sang House of the Rising Sun, and Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter performed some of her most iconic songs.
Julie Andrews, Bryan Cranston, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chita Rivera appeared in the segment for Van Dyke, along with Steve Martin. The latter noted that he was working at a magic shop at Disneyland in 1963 when he first met Van Dyke. Laura Osnes and Derek Hough performed Put On A Happy Face, while Pentatonix and Aaron Tveit sang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They capped it off with Step In Time from the terrace of the center, with the monuments of D.C. in the backdrop.
Gustavo Dudamel, Bette Midler and John Lithgow gave tributes to Midori, while Yo-Yo Ma performed Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prélude, in the center’s Hall of States. Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony played an excerpt from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Wilkins, followed by a performance from Hilary Hahn.
The liveliest segment was that devoted to Brooks, who was fighting back tears as Kelly Clarkson performed The Dance. He stood up and cheered at a number of points, as when Jimmie Allen did a sing-a-long of Friends in Low Places, with figures in the audience like Norah O’Donnell and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) on their feet clapping along. James Taylor sang The River with the National Symphony, and Jason Aldean, Wayne Gretzky and Bradley Cooper narrated tributes. The evening finished with Gladys Knight performing We Shall Be Free.
Gloria Estefan was the host.
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