The Kennedy Center Honors: The Grand Prize

Last night’s Kennedy Center Honors gala paid tribute to the artistic journey.

Sure, it celebrated playwright Edward Albee, composer and instrumentalist Benny Carter, country music star Johnny Cash, actor Jack Lemmon and dancer Maria Tallchief.

But if audience members stopped for a minute, and stepped out of the roles of celebrity gawkers, passive admirers or sentimental voyeurs, they learned something about sacrifice, about how artists stay their course, how they lead us all down the road of inspiration with miracles made simple — Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Carter’s mellow “When Lights Are Low” or Albee’s challenges to us from the stage to take another look in the mirror.

“A sense of the beautiful is an immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man,” said the evening’s host, Walter Cronkite, quoting Edgar Allan Poe. “Each year at the Kennedy Center, we honor a few, those rare few, who have reached deeply within themselves and given new life to that immortal instinct.”

Not everything beautiful is pretty. When Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash stepped onstage for a tribute to Johnny Cash, they were honoring a man who has made a lifetime choice to keep a rough style, singing in a rough voice to and about people who have felt the rougher side of life.

“With him, I’ve visited the hard places where endings aren’t always happy, but the music is always redeeming,” said Duvall, Cash’s longtime friend. Pete Seeger praised his “straightforward, working-class character.”

Kristofferson began the musical tribute with the slow-moving “Sunday Morning,” in which a man chooses to wear “the cleanest dirty shirt.” Lovett then joined him for “Folsom Prison Blues”; Harris joined the duo, leading on “Ring of Fire,” just before Rosanne Cash came onstage to pay tribute to her father, singing his signature song, “I Walk the Line.” In a pattern that would be repeated later in the evening for Benny Carter, the musical performance built from relaxed tempos into an upbeat celebration. For Cash, the celebration was “I’ll Fly Away,” a rocking anthem that Rosanne Cash said her father used to sing as a child in the cotton fields. The finale revealed the links between country music and gospel — so much so that members of the Choral Arts Society flowed onto the stage in gold choir robes, singing, clapping their hands and dipping into a Sunday-morning-style praise.

For Carter, guitarist Kenny Burrell and saxophonists Phil Woods and David Sanborn started the set with the smooth standard “Souvenir.” Then Jimmy Heath joined them for “When Lights Are Low,” a song with a little more strut in it, just before the Howard University Jazz Band glided in on an air-assisted bandstand for a foot-stomping rendition of “Cow Cow Boogie.”

“Benny Carter is always elegant,” said Wynton Marsalis. “That means he’s never overwhelmed by the ugly or the crass.” Marsalis then made his horn growl and wail. He went on to describe, with an accompanying musical interpretation, some of Carter’s other qualities: swing, sophistication, how to face adversity with elegance. “People often speak of whether an artist can live up to the art form,” Marsalis said, “but Benny Carter is one of the rare instances where we wonder if the great art created can live up to him.”

Actors George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris, Elaine Stritch and Irene Worth honored Albee by performing excerpts from his plays. Grizzard chose one of Albee’s first works, “The Zoo Story,” which seemed to sum up the type of questions that Albee has asked American theater audiences. He performed the scene as a soliloquy, addressing an imaginary man named Peter sitting on a park bench: “You have everything in the world you want . . . and now you want this bench. Are these the things men fight for? Tell me, Peter, is this bench . . . is this your honor? Is this the thing in the world you’d fight for? Can you think of anything more absurd?”

Grizzard also told the audience that “Edward Albee is the smartest man I know. And I have met four presidents.” The audience laughed, and then he added in the direction of the presidential box, “Mr. President, I had not met you at that time.”

Short-subject films produced about each honoree were, as always, important building blocks to the show. Especially in the case of Tallchief, the film allowed the audience to see her as a willowy, graceful ballerina, when she created her historic roles like Firebird for the New York stage.

The live performance tribute to Tallchief was a pas de deux from “Sylvia,” created for Tallchief by George Balanchine. Danced by Margaret Tracey and Angel Corella, it was an energetic, romantic piece that kept the two dancers pirouetting and leaping for love.

“Tallchief was my role model,” actress Goldie Hawn told the crowd. “She gave me a chance to say, That’s what I want to be.’ She gave me a sense of mastery. And I’ve tried to pass that legacy on to my own daughter. I didn’t become exactly that. But the truth is, there’s something of her in everything I do.”

Of course the films were also important for showcasing the work of Lemmon. With scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” “Missing,” “The Apartment” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” the tribute explained that the actor had played “everyday men, flawed men, it-could-be-any-one-of-us men, struggling to make sense of our world, our tiny but everything place in the scheme of things.”

Part of the celebration of Lemmon was like a Harvard University pep rally. More than five dozen members of the university’s glee club sang the school anthems “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and “Fair Harvard” before singing George Gershwin’s “Love Is Here to Stay.” The university’s Hasty Pudding Club, of which Lemmon was once the president, roasted him with a parody of the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” In the hands of the cross-dressing young men, the song became “They Can’t Take You Away From Us” (“The way you wore your hat!/ The way you filled your bust!/ The memory of all that!/ No no, they can’t take you away from us!”).

For the finale, the glee club was joined onstage by the Choral Arts Society in tuxedos and royal blue gowns and the Welsh singer Bryn Terfel for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a sort of credo of survival for artists. After they finished the selection, the honorees, in box seats adjacent to President and Mrs. Clinton, stood up and received an extended standing ovation.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Though your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone.

by Esther Iverem
Source: The Washington Post

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