The Kennedy Center Honors: From Astaire to Cher

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Cher on her "Farewell Tour" in 2004.

Even the bestowing of honors is a process that is often a long and meandering journey, replete with startling, even revolutionary pit stops.

That’s certainly the case for the Kennedy Center Honors, first presented in 1978. This year’s recipients were announced this week. It’s a long road from Fred Astaire to Cher, from Richard Rodgers to the creators of “Hamilton.”

Established to honor artists in a variety of genres and fields for their contributions to American culture, the Kennedy Center Honors have swung and swayed in emphasis over the years, often accompanying shifts in tastes in the fine and popular arts.

If you compare this year’s selections — which include the first-time-ever pick of the creators of a single work, “Hamilton,” the hip hop-flavored musical now enjoying a long road run at the Kennedy Center Opera House — to those of 1978, you can see the dramatic changes that have occurred, not all at once but over time, embracing stars of, for example, television, country music, blues and rock and roll.

In 1978, Astaire, an elder statesman, carried with him his magical dancing appeal, which lives on for Turner Classic Movies fans. The emphasis then was on the classic and classical: Broadway composer Rodgers, classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein, legendary American contralto Marian Anderson and giant of choreography George Balanchine.

Compare that list to the 2018 selections, which include a decidedly dramatic first: a Kennedy Center Honor given to the hugely successful “Hamilton” and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had the title role in the original Broadway production), director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and musical director Alex Lacamoire, cited as “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category.”

The other honorees are singer and pop personality Cher, formerly of Sonny and Cher, a dazzling, original movie star (“The Witches of Eastwick,” “Mermaids”) and winner of an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy, now resurgent with a high-profile role in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” She leads a class that includes the enduring jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter; the equally enduring country music star Reba McEntire, she of the red hair, soulful ballads of heartbreak and sitcom; and the famed minimalist composer Philip Glass. Produced by Washington National Opera in 2015, Glass’s “Appomattox,” far from his usual style, was a powerful portrayal of race in America.

Glass is a contemporary entrant from the Honors’ long list of classical music artists and composers. The list of jazz artists that Shorter is joining includes Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Cher comes from the world of pop — as well as rock, blues, soul, hip hop and Latin music — that gave us such earlier honorees as Bob Dylan, the Eagles and, in 2017, LL Cool J and Gloria Estefan.

The 40-year journey has included transitions and sometimes controversy — over the lack of Latino honorees, for instance.

Given the times we live in, and in spite of “Hamilton,” the big question about this year’s Kennedy Center Honors seems to be about a man who has no apparent taste for the arts, specifically or in general, except to periodically display a certain disdain for them.

It’s a tradition mostly adhered to that the president and the first lady appear in person at the Kennedy Center Honors, as well as at a State Department dinner with the honorees. The Trumps declined last year on the grounds that his politically controversial presence might distract from the honors and the honorees.

This was a first of sorts, amid some honorees (Norman Lear comes to mind) threatening not to attend the dinner.

As of this writing, there has been no word, yea or nay, from the White House, although some honorees — notably and viscerally Cher, as well as Miranda — have stated their opposition to some of the president’s views. The dinner and ceremony will take place on Dec. 2.

Trump aside, it’s better to note the richness of American culture, talent and artists that have been honored this way from the beginning.

Here are a few — and you can conjure many more — but here they are, just for the pleasure and pride: the writers, the composers, the choreographers, dancers, singers, actors, stars of stage and screens big and small.

Leonard Bernstein, Henry Fonda, Leontyne Price, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Isaac Stern, Beverly Sills, Ray Charles, George Burns, Mary Martin, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Acuff, Mstislav Rostropovich, Stephen Sondheim, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Jason Robards, Van Cliburn, George Jones, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carole King, Sting, Chuck Berry, Yo-Yo Ma.

Quite a parade.

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