Here comes the president! No, not that one.
Chris Jackson — who played George Washington in the original cast of Hamilton — is striding down the Kennedy Center Honors red carpet on Sunday with a diamond stud the size of a Skittle glittering in his ear. The actual president is MIA, as is the First Lady. Such is their standard practice for nearly every de rigueur presidential engagement. So, how does it feel to be the only commander-in-chief in the building? Jackson throws his head back, laughs, and says, “It’s really exciting. Very exciting.”
Jackson is on hand to support one of the night’s least conventional honorees: the four men who comprise the creative team behind Hamilton. Typically a Kennedy Center award is more of a lifetime-achievement award, as is the case for four of this year’s celebrated artists: Cher, Philip Glass, Reba McEntire, and jazz musician Wayne Shorter. But inspired by the “transformative work that defies category” that is Hamilton (and/or because they were hungry for the ratings bump a Hamilton performance will surely provide when the show airs on CBS on December 26), the Kennedy Center created a special award for director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, music director Alex Lacamoire, and writer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Hamilton’s already won everything under the sun. So even though it’s the first night of Hanukkah, we pose a very Passover-style question to this foursome: Why is this award different from all other awards?
“What I’m impressed by tonight is how much it takes to do what you do,” said Lacamoire, adding how a lifetime of training, starting from “all the practice I did when I was 4 years old,” is the only thing that can bring someone here. (This prompted Miranda to ask, “You just saw that Elton John commercial, didn’t you?” To which Lacamoire replied, “Oh my God, I did.”)
“It’s a group award. It’s a celebration of collaboration, which is the only way musicals get made,” said Miranda. “There’s no lone genius behind any musical, no matter what anyone tells you.”
The show itself, hosted by past Kennedy Center honoree Gloria Estefan, is a lovefest. Everyone gets a standing ovation for everything. And if you didn’t know it was a tradition for the president to attend, you probably wouldn’t have noticed his absence. (Nancy Pelosi filled his seat.) Such is the fun house state of our current reality that anything could be read as a subtweet, from Miranda’s Hamilton lyrics —“They’ll be safe in this nation we’ve made” — to Estefan’s opening remarks about “courage,” “integrity,” and “art that breaks through boundaries.”
That last idea of art as transgressive force — in the best sense of the word, as boundaries existing only until artists push beyond them for everyone’s benefit — recurred throughout the night. It was, of course, the justification for including Hamilton in the proceedings in the first place. But it came up again and again with every honoree, a presumably unintended symmetry among a set of diverse talents.
McEntire was toasted for her success in a genre that still treats women as tomatoes in that radio salad when it deigns to play them at all — someone veered from music to theater to television and would happily do so again. (Asked on the red carpet about a possible Reba reboot, she grinned and said, “We’re working on it.”) Shorter, the jazz wonder, was hailed for “breaking new ground” with his transcendent music, for crossing genres as easily as stepping over sidewalk cracks. In her remarks about Philip Glass, singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo spoke of Glass’s “deep knowledge, love, and respect for all the world’s cultures,” an intellectual curiosity matched with a genuine xenophilia that enabled him to compose his singular music. And when Amanda Seyfried took the stage to praise her Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again! grandma, she described how Cher “makes the world feel safer and more open for a lot of people” through her music and her advocacy.
In the McEntire tribute, Kelly Clarkson was adorably nervous to be toasting an icon who is also her stepmom-in-law (Clarkson married McEntire’s stepson, Brandon Blackstock, in 2013). “I love you so much. I hope you enjoy this song. Don’t judge me,” she said, before tearing into “Fancy.” (When Clarkson was done, she added, “I hope I did it justice! She sings it way better. This is so much pressure. I’m sweating.”) McEntire’s segment was closed out with the electric jolt that is Kristin Chenoweth who, in sparkly stiletto booties and a swinging minidress, sang “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” from Annie Get Your Gun!, in which McEntire starred in 2001.
Shorter’s performers included Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock, and soprano Renee Fleming, who sang a soaring “Aurora.” Paul Simon popped by to honor Glass, introducing Jon Batiste, who played a piano solo from Glassworks.
As for Hamilton, the original Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy — Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones — reunited for a stripped-down rendition of “The Schuyler Sisters,” and then (another break with tradition, as honorees usually stay in their seats) Miranda and Lacamoire joined Jackson and a children’s choir onstage to sing Washington’s farewell number, “One Last Time.”
Cher closed out the night, because obviously she did. Multiple people complimented Cher simply by saying, “You’re Cher,” as if no other descriptor could suffice.
Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in a blinding, all-sequins getup (“I went into your closet,” she explained to the honoree), was the first to honor “the true original.” “She not only marches to the beat of her own drum — honey, she is a one-woman band.” said Goldberg.
Adam Lambert turned “Believe,” Cher’s auto-tuned dance anthem, into a wrenching, slowed-down torch song. And Cyndi Lauper — God bless Cyndi Lauper — came out in these black over-the-knee boots, her white-blond hair a magnificent pouf, to roar through “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
Earlier on the red carpet, Cher insisted that awards weren’t something that preoccupied her in her 60-some-odd year career. “I never really think about doing things for awards, truly. Meryl told me once, you do things for the art, and if you get the award, it’s a bonus. And I never expected to win this award. I just never thought I was the right person to win this award.”
“Because I’m just a little bit out there. I’m a little bit — I’m the girl that rode the canon.”