It was a night of high notes at the Kennedy Center Honors, and not only because Sir Barry Gibb —and his signature falsetto — was inducted into the 2023 class along with Dionne Warwick, Queen Latifah, acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming and Billy Crystal.
Now in its 46th iteration, the Honors has steadily been morphing from a staid affair to a full-scale entertainment spectacle befitting the nation’s highest honor bestowed for artistic achievement. This year’s gala, held Sunday (Dec. 3) with President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden and a host of DC power players in the house, packed dazzle and dignity — and plenty of star power.
Host and 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan, as well as Michael Bublé, Dove Cameron, Ariana DeBose, Robert De Niro, Sheila E, Missy Elliott, Cynthia Erivo, Whoopi Goldberg, Gladys Knight, Jay Leno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rita Moreno, Ego Nwodim, Rob Reiner, Meg Ryan and Kerry Washington were among those who took the stage to fete the night’s guests of honor.
Gibb, 77, is one of the most prolific songwriters in history. He has written or co-written hundreds of songs, many alongside brothers Robin and Maurice as hitmaking machine the Bee Gees, whose songbook defined both disco and reinvention. Gibb penned the title track of the film Grease, performed by Frankie Valli; and together with the Bee Gees wrote the 1983 crossover smash “Islands in the Stream,” which Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers took to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The eldest and last living member of the family brotherhood, Gibb said before the show that he felt the presence of his siblings as he prepared to take his seat in the balcony of the opera house. “It’s very emotional; there’s something going on in the air and you just feel it,” he said of feeling the presence of late brothers Robin, Maurice and Andy Gibb.
Also emotional pre-show was Bublé, who described how Gibb jump-started his career 20 years ago by dueting with him on Bublé’s first album on one of his own songs. “I was working with producer David Foster and David said, ‘We have no heat, we need a duet.’ And no matter who we sent ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ to, we couldn’t get someone to duet.” Foster got Buble’s version of the song to Gibb, “and two days later my first duet was with Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees, and it changed my life,” Bublé said.
Bublé performed the track during Gibb’s tribute, which also included a compelling version of “Lonely Days” by Little Big Town, who collaborated with Gibb on his 2021 album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1,; a fittingly theatrical version of “Nights on Broadway” by Ben Platt; and a disco-infused medley featuring DeBose accompanied on piano by Chloe Flower that was the perfect crescendo to close out the night in a swirl of confetti.
Gibb’s son Stephen Gibb gave a heartfelt homage, noting, “My father somehow was gifted with a heart-focused, supernatural ability to express himself in song, which has allowed him to connect with people on such a mass level.”
Clive Davis was on hand to praise Warwick, 82, who counts the Bee Gees-penned “Heartbreaker” among her 56 charted hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and a reported 100 million records sold. He recounted the phenomenon of Warwick’s early partnership with Burt Bacharach and Hal David and the legacy that led her to win Grammys for their songs “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” She has since won three more Grammys plus a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy.
“There simply is no song that Dionne Warwick cannot sing,” Davis said. “The lexicon of her hits is as great and as deep as any artist who has ever recorded.”
After 2020 Kennedy Center honoree Debbie Allen and 2013 honoree Herbie Hancock bestowed accolades for Warwick’s humanitarian activism, including her collaboration with Elton John, Knight and Stevie Wonder on “That’s What Friends Are For” — the 1985 hit and first recording dedicated to raising AIDS awareness — the musical tributes started to flow.
Mickey Guyton and The Spinners delivered a smooth and spirited rendition of “Then Came You”; Erivo manifested a soaring “Alfie,” which brought Warwick to tears; and Knight offered up a perfectly punctuated version of “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Before her time on stage, Saturday Night Live cast member Nwodim gushed about her experience portraying Warwick, alongside the real Warwick, in a now-storied sketch. “Her embrace of the impression and then publicly celebrating it was really special to me,” she said. “I am eternally grateful to her for that.”
Latifah, 53, is the first female rapper to receive Honors, and Moreno and Washington dove deep into the reasons why during their tributes, before an assembly of rap and hip-hop heavyweights —including Monie Love, MC Lyte, D-Nice, Yo-Yo and Rapsody — cranked up the volume with a medley including Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” and “Ladies First.”
As one of the artists to pay tribute to LL Cool J when he became the first hip-hop artist to receive Honors, Latifah told Billboard pre-show she was embracing her moment. “It’s trippy to be here for myself tonight,” she said. “I feel very honored. I’m very, very humbled. Being honored the same year as hip-hop’s 50th anniversary? “Icing on the cake.”
Latifah recently inducted Missy Elliott into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Elliott returned the favor with an intimate tribute that brought both laughs and knowing nods. By crowning herself Queen, Elliott said, Latifah is saying, “People will respect me, I will be a leader, I will be a provider, I will be an inspiration to many. I will be the blueprint to success. I don’t set the bar, I am the bar.”
Crystal, 75, joins an elite group of comedy performers — including David Letterman, Steve Martin and Carol Burnett — to be bestowed with both the Kennedy Center Honor and the Center’s Mark Twain Prize, which he received in 2007.
He was feeling patriotic when Billboard caught up with him before the show. Describing his experience at the dinner hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken the night before, he said, “Secretary Blinken had just flown in from Tel Aviv, he landed at 5 a.m. and in the middle of this horrendous situation, he hosts us, makes a brilliant speech about the arts… and then they put [the lanyard] on us. It’s spectacular. This is our country. This is who we are, and more people should feel that and be positive about America. This isn’t an awards show. This is about appreciation for the soul of our artistic community, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Rob Reiner, in town to celebrate his friend whom he directed in The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally… (and This Is Spinal Tap, if you count that one line), noted on the red carpet, “The guy is a great comedian and he’s also not afraid to show his feelings, and that’s a rare combination.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda realized a different kind of dream. “I’ve been dreaming of doing an Oscar-style tribute to Billy Crystal since I was 10,” he said of the nine-time Academy Awards host before launching into the perfect Crystal-esque number, complete with song and dance.
Ryan reminisced about that fateful scene from When Harry Met Sally... —“I’ve never been around anyone who makes faking an orgasm easier”— Goldberg recalled the early days of Comic Relief working with Crystal and the late, great Robin Williams (whose absence was deeply felt). “We were constantly being reminded to behave ourselves, which we did not,” she said, while Bob Costas honored their shared love of baseball and the Yankees. Between dropping “f” bombs, De Niro dropped some priceless jokes.
“I had no idea you’d won so much,” he said to Crystal. “And you’ve done it all in such a relatively short amount of time. You’re only 71. That means you’re just about six years away from bring the perfect age to be elected President,” he snarked, right in front of 81-year-old President Biden.
Fleming, 64, is one of the most prominent sopranos of our time, and her tribute showcased the breadth of her influence. She was the first opera singer to perform the National Anthem at a Super Bowl, in 2014. She also launched the first ongoing collaboration between the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health.
Presenters included Christine Baranski, a fellow Juilliard alum, who reminded the audience that Fleming once sang the top 10 on list on David Letterman’s late-night show, and Titus Burgess, who demonstrated some serious pipes.
Dove Cameron, who appeared alongside Fleming in the musical The Light in the Piazza, shared, “I was never not astounded by the quality of human Renee is,” Cameron said before showcasing her own musical chops performing the title track from that show.
This year’s Kennedy Center Honors special was again produced by Done+Dusted, in association with ROK Productions. The special will air Wednesday, Dec. 27 on CBS and stream live and on demand on the CBS app and Paramount+.