Among all the awards bestowed on musicians, actors, playwrights and others in the world of entertainment, the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony is the only American tribute that brings lifetime achievement in all the performing arts together, at one time and in one place.
A Kennedy Center Honor recognizes lifetime accomplishment by American artists and those from other nations who have achieved prominence in the United States. This year one of the recipients was British musician Paul McCartney, the onetime Beatle who continues to be an influential composer of pop music and symphonic works.
The center’s 33rd annual honors celebration, held December 5 and to be aired on CBS Television on December 28, also saluted four Americans: composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, modern dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, country singer/songwriter Merle Haggard, and actress, producer and television host Oprah Winfrey.
“The arts have always had the power to challenge and the power to inspire — to help us celebrate in times of joy and find hope in times of trouble,” President Obama said during a White House reception for the honorees December 5. The honorees “aren’t being recognized simply because of their careers. … Instead, they’re being honored for their unique ability to bring us closer together and to capture something larger about who we are — not just as Americans, but as human beings.”
A dinner for the honorees was hosted at the State Department by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the evening before the Kennedy Center’s annual gala tribute.
Herman, winner of two Tony awards, is best known for composing the scores for the Broadway musicals Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. Reflecting a golden age of musical theater, Herman’s work embraces the sunnier side of life. And yet, he invariably has been aware of the moment. In transposing the French film farce La Cage aux Folles to the stage in 1983, Herman included issues of equality and sexuality just as those issues had begun to be debated in the United States. The show’s revival today on Broadway arrived as elements of the debate continue.
Jones, a powerful dancer and creator of more than 150 pieces, has taken his free-flowing, kinetic and sometimes pointedly political work to more than two dozen countries. Born in Florida, one of a dozen children, he experienced life in the fields where his parents toiled as migrant workers. Those early years and the memory of his collaborator and partner, Arnie Zane, who died at age 39 from AIDS complications, have influenced Jones’ work and kept it on the cutting edge of dance. He has won two Tony awards, Broadway’s highest honor, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called “genius” grant, for his choreography on Broadway. One of his Tony awards was for Fela!, which is based on the life of Nigerian composer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Haggard, also a child of impoverished migrant workers, has composed more than 600 recorded songs, including more than three dozen that topped national country music charts. Haggard has won two performing Grammies, the award for outstanding achievement in the music industry, and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Famous for his vocal intonation, the musical properties and phrasings of his performance, he has been called a poet of the common man. His plain-spoken songs — “one of the greatest repertoires in all of American music,” according to Rolling Stone magazine — have been embraced by hundreds of artists.
In the words of celebrated singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, Haggard “has always been as deep as it gets — totally himself. Herculean.”
Along with his fellow Beatles, Paul McCartney changed the face of contemporary music; the sounds, performance styles and sensibilities of the group permeated popular culture worldwide. He later formed the group Paul McCartney & Wings, which lasted until 1981, and he continues to perform around the world. McCartney has more recently turned his attention to writing poetry and creating symphonic poems, oratorios and compositions for solo instruments, without forsaking his rock ‘n’ roll origins. “One of the most influential and doubtless the most successful composer of our time, Paul McCartney has left an indelible mark in the vast and varied landscape that is American music,” says his Kennedy Center biography. McCartney also was honored in June when the Library of Congress presented him with the Gershwin Prize.
Oprah Winfrey’s roots are in rural Mississippi, where she overcame a tough childhood to become one of America’s most successful entertainers as well as a movie and television producer. She starred in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and in other films. On her TV talk show and in the magazine she founded, Winfrey has promoted reading, child protection and philanthropy at home and overseas. Within and outside the performing arts, Winfrey, in Obama’s words, “has shown millions of people around the world — people she probably will never meet — what it means to believe in ‘the dream of your own life.’”
Of the five honorees, Obama said, “Their lives and their stories … are as diverse as any you can imagine. Yet in their own way, each of these honorees helps us understand the human experience.”
“This evening is not about honoring American artists, so much as it is about honoring artists who have [helped] to shape America,” Clinton said. “And it is an important distinction … because America has always been influenced by the experiences and contributions of other cultures.”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S.)