If you’ve ever wanted to see Aretha Franklin on stage with R2-D2, this is your chance.
The 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors air Tuesday, paying tribute to Star Wars director and visual effects maverick George Lucas, singer/songwriter Carole King, trailblazing actresses Rita Moreno and Cicely Tyson, and conductor Seiji Ozawa. Hosted by Stephen Colbert, the evening features, as usual, a star-studded list of presenters and performers. Here are five moments you won’t want to miss.
1. Gina Rodriguez’s “love letter” to Rita Moreno. As you see in our exclusive sneak peek above, the Jane the Virgin star finally gets to tell the EGOT winner everything she wished she could have said to her when she thought about sending her idol a letter at age 15. It’s a perfect, moving beginning to the evening’s tributes, and, as Rodriguez recalls asking her mother “Mom, when did Puerto Ricans come about?” because she’d never seen one on screen, also a powerful reminder of how much representation matters.
Moreno’s tribute also includes Rosie Perez performing “Fever” with Animal, in honor of Moreno’s Emmy-winning appearance on The Muppet Show and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda sharing the story of Moreno storming the stage like “an altruistic Kanye West” at a charity event when the audience was ignoring the entertainment before he introduces a performance of “America” from West Side Story (which, Colbert notes, “opened a generation’s eyes to the dangers of ballet gang violence”).
2. Aretha Franklin steals the show. The Carole King tribute closes the two-hour telecast, and rather than do the traditional video biography, Chilina Kennedy, currently starring as Carole in the Broadway musical Beautiful, narrates King’s life story on stage. Other performers include Janelle Monáe (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day”), James Taylor (“Up on the Roof”), and Sara Bareilles (“You’ve Got a Friend”), but it’s the Queen of Soul who brings the crowd to their feet. King can barely contain herself when Aretha takes the stage wearing a fur coat and clutching her purse, then sits down at a piano to sing “Natural Woman.” It brought a tear to President Obama’s eye.
But once Aretha stands and drops her coat, everyone is feeling good.
The evening closes with people who took part in the various tributes returning for “I Feel the Earth Move” — that’s where you get the wonderfully random shots of Franklin and R2-D2, and Taylor and C-3PO, sharing the same stage.
3. Cue the Stormtroopers. The most timely of the tributes, Lucas’s section of the program needs two James Earl Jones-narrated biopics to paint a full portrait of him as a storyteller and technological innovator. Steven Spielberg is on hand to explain how Star Wars changed movies (and joke that at 71, Lucas still has all his hair, like Chewbacca), while Martin Scorsese describes Lucas’s passions — cars, movies, movies about cars, and music. It’s that last one, which Scorsese says becomes another character in Lucas’s films, that leads to the Kennedy Center Honors Orchestra performing the legendary themes from Indiana Jones and Star Wars (with appearances by a few special guests, as seen in the photo above). With the accompanying light show and confetti drop, it makes you wish you were in that theater.
4. CeCe Winans performs “Blessed Assurance.” Tyler Perry, Viola Davis, and Kerry Washington give poignant speeches about 91-year-old powerhouse Cicely Tyson. But it’s gospel great Winans singing “Blessed Assurance,” a hymn that Tony winner Tyson sang during every performance of the play The Trip to Bountiful, that makes everyone — from Tyson herself to seated guest Usher — tear up. She’s joined by the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts choir and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who also performs “My Funny Valentine” in honor of Tyson’s tradition of honoring her late husband Miles Davis by visiting a jazz club every year on his birthday.
5. Yo-Yo Ma makes Seiji Ozawa cry. It’s the conductor’s turn to wipe his eyes when Yo-Yo Ma performs Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile.” At first it seems an odd choice to have a cellist honor the man who conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, but like Ozawa, who’s been described as “calligraphy in motion,” Yo-Yo Ma brings a composer’s work to life so fully that when the music he’s making stops, the silence feels empty.
Conductor and violinist Itzhak Perlman and opera singer Renée Fleming speak to Ozawa’s greatness, but it’s the John Williams-narrated biopic video that will introduce many viewers to this man — who owes his career choice to breaking two fingers while playing rugby when he was a 14-year-old aspiring piano virtuoso.
The 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors airs Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.