Changes at the Kennedy Center Honors

2018-kennedy-center-honoreesThings are a little different for “The 41st Annual Kennedy Center Honors” (CBS, 8 p.m.), usually the classiest thing on network TV between the holidays.

First, the roster of honorees — Cher, Reba McEntire, Wayne Shorter, Philip Glass and the creators of “Hamilton” are seen posing together, as in a tableau, on the Kennedy Center stage in the opening moments of the event. That pose usually happens at the State Department dinner the night before with the President. But Trump didn’t show for the second year in a row, and the Secretary of State didn’t either; they still posed there, though, so they posed again on stage to kickstart the event.

Then they had to find their way to their seats — the individual honorees to the Presidential Box sans president; and the “Hamilton” crew, the youngest honorees so far by far, together on the main floor for some reason. To separate them from the lifetime achievers, likely.

But even having them on the roster was only a way to lend some excitement to an event where there were no actors or dancers honored this year (the Kennedy Center Honors is a pretty spotty list, actually. Wayne Shorter may be a deserving jazz figure, but among his credits was playing with Joni Mitchell, who has never been inducted. Part of it is a willingness to appear — McCartney couldn’t make it the year they tried to nominate him, so they didn’t nominate him again for a few years. But it’s weird who gets in and doesn’t.

Reba McEntire is an entertainer most people like, but is she is only the third woman from Nashville after Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, to be included, and only the seventh country singer overall (after them and Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and george Jones). Are we missing some people in here?

And what about Cher? She’s conquered the top 10, variety show TV, movies and the concert stage, but even she knows there’s more than a little camp associated with her name. Still, she was the climactic performer of the evening.

It’s usually worth watching to see who will appear to honor those chosen, and in Cher’s case it might have been a similar mix of pop glitz and Hollywood like Lady Gaga. Instead, Cindy Lauper and Adam Lambert, the “American Idol” runner up who now fronts Queen — though the latter was a surprise in a slow and convincing version of “Believe” without the need for vocoder.

Most of the surprises were for the kind of music least seen on network TV, with a fine ensemble including Esperanza Spalding doing Shorter’s work and particularly a variety of artists doing the work of Philip Glass, in a segment introduced by his onetime collaborator Paul Simon (who did to otherwise perform).

But Jon Baptiste, the bandleader on the network’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” did a dazzling turn on a piece from “Glassworks”; and St. Vincent joined to play a figure with the Glass Quartet.

Caroline Kennedy once introduced the event at the performing arts center named for her father, then Colbert filled in. This time it was Gloria Estefan, who was fine (but where was Caroline?).

Having the “Hamilton” crew on hand meant another change in protocol: the honorees were going to be asked to perform the very thing they were being honored for. But nobody complained when Lin-Manuel Miranda took the stage opposite Christopher Jackson, or when the original Schuyler Sisters reunited for their number. Indeed, they were among the most exciting musical events of the night.

There were some political faces here and there in the crowd that were as fun to spot as the celebs.

And the one shot you would always see at the event, where the presenting network has more than a hand in who is selected and why, was missing: That of former chairman Les Moonves in the audience.

(Here’s a report on the event I did for Entertainment Weekly).

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