Neil Diamond’s tribute on tonight’s (12/27) 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors is enough to bring tears to the eyes of Diamond fans – especially if they happen to hail from Boston and have a soft spot for the Kennedy family. At least, according to producer George Stevens Jr., that was the heartfelt response among many attendees inside the Washington, D.C. gala when it was recorded earlier this month.
Diamond’s segment of the festivities include a film clip of the singer-songwriter performing on the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park, performances by Rafael Saadiq, Jennifer Nettles, Lionel Ritchie, and Smokey Robinson, who sings “Sweet Caroline” along with the entire audience plus 150 Red Sox fans bused down from Boston for the event. “And at the end, Caroline Kennedy comes and sits down next to Lionel Ritchie,” says Stevens of the song’s namesake. “It just seemed like the right thing.”
Among the highlights of this classiest of awards shows, viewers of the two-hour special on CBS will see Robert De Niro and Tracey Ullman in comedic form as they honor their pal Meryl Streep, along with Anne Hathaway, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. Bill Cosby launches a tuneful tribute to jazz great Sonny Rollins. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick introduce Broadway’s Barbara Cook. And cellist Ma is feted by a group including James Taylor, Elmo of “Sesame Street” and…Stephen Colbert?
“It turns out that Yo-Yo has been on Colbert’s show twice, so they’re acquainted, and Stephen is a great admirer of his, and he’s absolutely wonderful,” Stevens declares. “Yo-Yo’s is the last tribute. Everyone expects it to be Neil Diamond’s, but it’s his. And they expect that some long-haired musician is going to come out and start talking about him, and then it’s Stephen Colbert, being hilarious and touching at the same time.”
That final tribute moves through the array of musical worlds that Ma inhabits, from classical through bluegrass, traditional Chinese to kid’s songs. “It’s this whole idea that he is expanding our musical universe,” explains Stevens, who co-produces the event with his son, Michael.
Research and planning begin in September, and the Stevenses delight in bringing together disparate artists for the affair, which includes a weekend of smaller events leading up to the gala. “It was so much fun, and we had the cast together afterwards. The classical musicians love to meet the pop musicians. Actors love interacting with the jazz legends. This intermix of artistic lives, really, that’s the essence of the Kennedy Center Honors,” Stevens says.
According to him, Streep and Diamond, who sat together at the event, seemed to hit it off. She was already friends with Ma; “They had just been in China together on a cultural mission.”
Stevens would love to make the 34 Honors shows available to the public for posterity on DVD or download. “It should be. I can’t think there’s any better repository of cultural history in the United States,” he says. “I hope we get it sorted out.”