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A look at the excellence celebrated in tonight's airing of Kennedy Center Honors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This year's Kennedy Center honorees are Billy Crystal, Dionne Warwick, Renee Fleming, Queen Latifah and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. They were in Washington, D.C., earlier this month for a splashy celebration. And tonight is your chance to see that star-studded event on TV. NPR's Elizabeth Blair was there in person and has a preview of what to expect.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: For Kennedy Center honoree Queen Latifah, it was an all-ages tribute.

SAVANNAH MCCONNEAUGHEY: Yes. My name is Savannah Zoe McConneaughey, aka, VanVan.

BLAIR: Before the show, 5-year-old VanVan told me she'd be performing one of her favorite Queen Latifah songs.

SAVANNAH: (Singing) U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U.N.I.T.Y.")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Here we go. Here we go. U.N.I.T.Y., you got to let them know. U.N.I.T.Y., c'mon, c'mon. Here we go...

BLAIR: Every year, the Kennedy Center gathers A-list talent to salute the honorees with performances. They keep the lineup a secret. And something special about the broadcast is that you get to see the honorees react. They typically sit in box seats with the president and first lady. This year, when The Clark Sisters performed for Queen Latifah, she was on her feet, beaming and singing along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BROUGHT THE SUNSHINE")

THE CLARK SISTERS: (Singing) You made my day. You came my way.

BLAIR: Honoree Dionne Warwick is not just known for her impeccable vocals, she's also got a huge following on social media. "Saturday Night Live" cast member Ego Nwodim joked that Warwick is never at a loss for words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EGO NWODIM: Even now, when people ask about all that she's done, she says, I don't know why people are so curious about my life. They need to get their own.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Musical performances for Warwick included Mickey Guyton and The Spinners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEN CAME YOU")

MICKEY GUYTON AND THE SPINNERS: (Singing) Oh, I never knew love before. Then came you. Then came you.

BLAIR: Barry Gibb was celebrated for having written hundreds of songs. He and his brothers, the late Robin and Maurice Gibb, started performing as the Bee Gees in 1958. Their songs for the 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever" are iconic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT FEVER")

BEE GEES: (Singing) Listen to the ground, there is movement all around. There is something going down, and I can feel it.

BLAIR: Movies, TV, theater - Billy Crystal has done it all. He was honored by his friend Rob Reiner. He directed Crystal in "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB REINER: Not only was he great as Harry Burns, but Bill wrote what I believe is maybe the funniest line in all of movie history - I'll have what she's having.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Lin-Manuel Miranda offered this musical tribute to Crystal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Singing) Making us laugh on that show with three letters, courting Meg Ryan in cable knit sweaters, hosting the Oscars, we said, oh, he sings. These are a few of our favorite things.

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center Honors recognize artistic excellence. Renee Fleming is a world-renowned opera singer and an advocate for mental health. She made her Broadway debut in "Carousel" in 2018. In her honor, Tituss Burgess performed one of the musical's most famous songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TITUSS BURGESS: (Singing) When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark.

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center Honors airs on CBS and streams on Paramount+ tonight.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYLE SONG, "PINKTREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.