The 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors premieres on CBS December 22 at 9 PM ET; check local listings.
This year's broadcast celebrates lifetime artistic achievements of stage and screen star Bette Midler, most recently on Broadway in a Tony-winning turn as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the revival of Hello, Dolly!; operatic bass-baritone Justino Díaz; Motown founder, songwriter, producer, and director Berry Gordy; Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels; and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
The honorees received their medallions at a December 4 ceremony and were fêted December 5 in an evening that opened with remarks by David Letterman and was produced by Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment.
Three-time Tony recipient Chita Rivera honored singer Diaz, who was also celebrated in a performance by his daughters, Katya Diaz and three-time Helen Hayes Award winner and Broadway actor Natascia Diaz. The tribute to Midler featured a medley of her hits performed by Tony and Emmy winner Billy Porter; Tony winner Kelli O'Hara's rendition of Midler's Beaches anthem, "Wind Beneath My Wings"; a performance from Midler's Hello, Dolly! castmates Beanie Feldstein, Kate Baldwin, and Taylor Trensch; and appearances from Barbara Hershey, Goldie Hawn, Scarlett Johansson, and Melissa Manchester.
The cast of Broadway's Ain't Too Proud, which recently reopened at the Imperial Theatre, helped honor Motown founder Gordy, as did Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Andra Day. Celebrating singer and songwriter Mitchell were Norah Jones, Ellie Golding, Brandi Carlile, Brittany Howard, and Herbie Hancock.
Paying tribute to producer Michaels were singer Paul Simon, actor and comic Steve Martin, and a host of Saturday Night Live regulars: Kevin Nealon, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Colin Jost, and Michael Che.
“The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates luminaries whose art and creativity have enriched us beyond measure,” stated Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein in an earlier statement. “With his distinguished, deeply resonant voice and storied operatic career, Justino Díaz, stood on the stages of the world’s great opera houses and today stands as one of the greatest bass-baritones of our time; visionary music producer and songwriter Berry Gordy brought the quintessential soulfulness of Detroit into every home in America, elevating the Motown sound to become a national treasure; Lorne Michaels created the most enduring ‘must-see television’ with Saturday Night Live, a show that is both mirror and muse for life in America; an artistic tour de force and America’s Divine Miss M, Bette Midler has enjoyed an unrivaled and prolific career, entertaining millions with her wondrous voice and trademark comedic wit; and songstress Joni Mitchell, blends raw, deeply personal lyrics with her stunningly ethereal voice in 19 albums, becoming one of the most influential singer-songwriters and cultural figures in 20th-century popular music.”
The recipients are recognized for their contributions to American culture through the performing arts—whether in music, dance, theatre, opera, motion pictures, or television—and are confirmed by the Executive Committee of the Center’s Board of Trustees.
Last year's honorees included Tony nominee Debbie Allen, Tony winner Dick Van Dyke, singer-songwriter and activist Joan Baez, country singer-songwriter Garth Brooks, and violinist Midori.