Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick, Renee Fleming, Barry Gibb and Billy Crystal Lauded by Kennedy Center for Contributions to American Culture

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WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center Honors was a decidedly tuneful affair, with musical talents representing four of its five recipients – vocalists and/or songwriters Dionne Warwick, Renée Fleming, Queen Latifah and Barry Gibb — along with actor/comedian/filmmaker Billy Crystal.

The program, in its 46th year, followed the traditional format that showcases tributes to each honoree by artists and celebs whose identities are undisclosed in advance. It kicked off with a lively parade of dancers down the aisles, led by emcee and former honoree Gloria Estefan and accompanied by Sheila E on drums — a first for the event. Produced again by Done and Dusted Inc., it will air Dec. 27 on CBS.

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Omitted this year was one familiar staple at the event – the inclusion of brief video biographies of each honoree that emphasized their childhoods and routes to success. Instead, minimal use of videos embellished career highlights.

The tribute to Warwick led off the proceedings before a packed audience that included President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden, as well as several members of the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress. Former honoree Herbie Hancock introduced the segment.

Past honoree Debbie Allen then introduced an array of artists to comment and perform Warwick staples—Mickey Guyton and The Spinners (“Then Came You”), Cynthia Erivo (“Alfie”), Chloe Bailey (“Walk on By”) and Gladys Knight (“Say a Little Prayer”). Producer Clive Davis offered insights into Warwick’s connection with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, as well as his own interactions with the artist. Actress/singer Ego Nwodim also joined the toast.

Next up was the salute to comedian Crystal, supported by another cadre of celebs beginning with Estefan, who noted the paucity of comics to receive the award. “Not since Bob Hope in 1985 has a comedian been awarded a Kennedy Center Honor,” she noted.

Others included Rob Reiner, Jay Leno, Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Costas and Robert De Niro. They offered a parade of insights on films including Ryan’s faked orgasm on the Reiner-directed pic, “When Harry Met Sally,” and Crystal’s nine times as host duties at the Academy Awards, for which Goldberg suggested he receive an honorary Oscar. Costas cited Crystal’s fondness for baseball.

De Niro complimented Crystal for his “honesty and compassion that defines your life and your acting.” In addition, he said, Crystal has achieved his many accomplishments before reaching his tender age of 75. “That means you’re just about six years away from being the perfect age to be elected president!” The line drew extended applause and a wave from President Biden.

Honoree Queen Latifah was introduced by former honoree Rita Moreno as the first female rapper to receive the Kencen ribbon. Actor Kerry Washington and rapper/songwriter Missy Elliott praised the honoree in a lively set kicked off by four-year-old rapper Van Van. Others included rappers MCLyte, Monie Love, Yo-Yo, and D-Nice performing “Latifah’s Had It Up to Here.” Then came rapper Rapsody (“Poetry Man”) followed by gospel groups the Clark Sisters and Rev. Stef & Jubilation (“You Brought the Sunshine”).

The tribute to soprano Fleming celebrated both the singer’s glorious voice as well as her tireless efforts to promote the arts. Actress/singer Christine Baranski set the tone in reverent remarks, and later joined singers Tituss Burgess and Susan Graham in singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was one of the evening’s most rousing moments. The set included Antonin Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” from the opera “Rusalka” performed by Angel Blue, Julia Bullock, Ailyn Perez, Nadine Sierra and Patrick Summers. Soprano Dove Cameron sang “The Light in the Piazza.”

The final tribute for Bee Gee member Gibb, introduced by former honoree Amy Grant, featured a broad selection of faves by the prolific songwriter. Participants included Estefan, Michael Buble, Ben Platt, Ariana DeBose, Chloe Flower and the honoree’s son, Stephen.

While the two-hour production is the public face of the Honors, the affair’s soul is displayed the previous evening at an invitation-only dinner at the U.S. State Department hosted by the Secretary of State (in this case a travel-weary Antony Blinken, who had returned earlier that day from an overseas trip). It is there that honorees receive their medallions by Kencen chairman David Rubenstein following a reception and dinner.

That camaraderie was on full display this year, as recipients — introduced by 2015 honoree Rita Moreno, the evening’s emcee — basked in their sisterhood of disparate genres and career paths, surrounded by music industry titans including record producer Davis and rapper/actor/entrepreneur MC Lyte. “If it weren’t for MC, I wouldn’t be here,” said honoree Latifah, who said she was “proud to be part of the class of 2023.”

During her remarks, Moreno stressed the distinction between the Kencen Honors and other showbiz awards. The purpose of the Honors is not to laud artists for specific achievements, but to recognize their contributions to American culture, she noted.

Crystal was lauded by sports commentator Costas, who called him an MVP for celebrated roles on “Saturday Night Live” and films including “When Harry Met Sally” and “City Slickers.” In his remarks, Crystal praised comedians of his childhood including Carl Reiner, whose son and close pal Rob Reiner was seated at his table.

For honoree Fleming, the Honors tribute might strike some as overdue. Along with her prodigious talents and numerous awards, Fleming has contributed tirelessly to the Kencen and its programs for years. She once emceed the dinner event, arriving for her duties straight from an NYC performance. She was toasted by author and close chum Ann Patchett, who called her “the living embodiment of art.”

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