The star-studded Kennedy Center at 50 concert event (reviewed live by Olivia Hampton below) will be broadcast Friday, October 1, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS video app.
Celebrating 50 years of the National Cultural Center, the evening is hosted by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and features the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). Taking part in in this special broadcast are Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, creators of the TikTok smash The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical; violinist Ray Chen; Oscar and Grammy Award winner Common; American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Herman Cornejo and Cassandra Trenary; Emmy and Golden Globe winner Darren Criss; Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Renée Fleming; Tony and Grammy Award nominee Joshua Henry; four-time Grammy Award–winning pianist, composer, producer, and founding Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council Member Robert Glasper; the original cast of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s groundbreaking musical-within-a-play, Soft Power; Kennedy Center Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph; Grammy–nominated soul singer-songwriter Bettye LaVette; Grammy Award–winning musician Keb’ Mo’; Latin Grammy winner and Grammy Award nominee Gaby Moreno; Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara; lead singer of Lake Street Drive Rachael Price; Grammy Award–winning band Punch Brothers; Grammy nominee D Smoke; DJ, producer, and musician, Jahi Sundance; Star Wars and Raya and the Last Dragon star Kelly Marie Tran; Astaire Award winner and Tony Award® nominee Tony Yazbeck; and Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence Mo Willems in a world premiere collaboration with Artistic Advisor to the NSO, Ben Folds.
Stars shine for Kennedy Center 50th anniversary show
Facing a deficit due to COVID and calls for social justice reckonings, the Center celebrates the centrality of the arts to our democracy.
Originally published September 16, 2021
The Kennedy Center threw a big 50th birthday party Tuesday, showcasing a wide range of stars in its biggest performance hall packed with an enthusiastic audience.
Hosted by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, the celebratory concert featured American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Herman Cornejo and Cassandra Trenary, singers Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara, violinists Ray Chen and Randall Goosby, the Grammy Award–winning band Punch Brothers, and blues musician Keb’ Mo’ among a dizzying slate of performers. No less than three conductors — JoAnn Falletta, Steven Reineke, and Thomas Wilkins — took up the baton to lead the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in orchestral works and accompaniments to featured artists. Caroline Kennedy and her daughter Rose Kennedy Schlossberg hailed the center that serves as a living memorial to their father and grandfather during the show also attended by First Lady Jill Biden.
“The past 50 years have shown that my grandparents were right. The arts are central to our democracy, and to our lives as individuals and communities across the nation.” —Rose Kennedy Schlossberg
The show kicked off with a Piscataway Native American ceremonial song and the Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein, who hosted a 1962 telecast that raised funds for what eventually became the Kennedy Center. Bernstein had then introduced top music, dance, and theater artists to a national audience. They included singers Marian Anderson and Harry Belafonte, ballerina Maria Tallchief, pianist Van Cliburn, and a seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma.
This time around, there was a greater diversity of performers celebrating past heritage and looking to the future. Highbrow and popular culture melded seamlessly in a stream of dance, musical theater, and a variety of music genres. “Our cup overfloweth in many ways,” said Joshua Bergasse, who directed the 2.5-hour special and choreographed a featured pas de deux from On the Town. Some of the performances would have been unimaginable five decades ago. Take Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear’s TikTok smash hit The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which has evolved to live shows and a concept album inspired by the popular Netflix series Bridgerton.
The Punch Brothers quintet brought their improvisational, progressive bluegrass style to the stage, standing under cones of light while the rest of the hall was plunged in darkness. Chen, a Taiwanese-born Australian violinist with a huge social media following of millions of adoring fans, showcased his versatility as he slid, with the help of some highly expressive eyebrows, from Johann Sebastian Bach’s mournful Chaconne to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing).” Dianne Reeves, who was also accompanied by Christian McBride on bass, Christian Sands on piano, and Carl Allen on drums, brought the house down in her soulful rendition of the Duke Ellington jazz standard. As the song progressed, they were joined by tap dancers John and Leo Manzari, along with six swing dancers. With so many stars appearing one after the other in a filmed event, “it’s scheduled and thought through within an inch of its life,” explained Bergasse. His entire summer was consumed by nonstop phone calls, texts, emails, and Zoom meetings to make sure everything lined up just right.
Embracing varied facets of American culture and society has been at the heart of the Kennedy Center’s mission from the start. Translating that mission into radical change in the performances gracing its lush halls is another matter. America’s latest chapter of reckoning over entrenched race, gender, and socioeconomic inequalities may finally make that change a reality. And it’s a necessary one, critical for the survival of this cultural institution and countless others across the country and around the globe.
The people at the heart of such efforts include Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact. “Who in this country is manufacturing empathy, just a little bit?” he asked in a spoken-word poetry performance. “Walk the walk.”
Filled with plush red velvet seats and lavish chandeliers as it may be, the Kennedy Center also strives to embrace and reflect the public at large through initiatives like its Hip Hop Culture Council, of which Common is a member. On a stage shared with the NSO and facing a mostly-white public, the rapper intoned what could double as a Black Lives Matter anthem. He riffed on slavery, exploitation, and police violence targeting Blacks. But he ended on a hopeful note. “We’re gonna write a new story,” he sang.
The show marked the official reopening of the Kennedy Center’s doors to the public for live, full-scale productions, following last week’s concert honoring the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The last time the NSO performed in the Concert Hall, in June, concertgoers filled only about 10 percent of the 2,500 seats due to pandemic restrictions. But with the evolution of local and national guidelines, Tuesday’s audience was at full capacity. The Kennedy Center requires patrons to wear face masks at all times and show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a recent negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the performance in order to attend indoor events, following guidance developed in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic.
Now that safety measures allow them—and more people are vaccinated—full-capacity performances are also essential to keep performing arts organizations afloat. Despite injections of federal funding, the Kennedy Center currently faces an $11 million deficit in the fiscal year ending this month. Even with expected fundraising over the coming days, the shortfall remains large. Since March 13, 2020, when the pandemic first forced its doors to close, the center has canceled some 2,058 events. While the golden anniversary season is filled with world premieres and special commissions, it’s still a transition period with a 25% reduction in programming.
As a Broadway artist, Bergasse was directly affected by the dearth of live performances during the pandemic. “The chance to not only work on a performance like this but to do it at the Kennedy Center and with this lineup of artists is really something special, especially after what I and everybody else have been through in the last 18 months,” he said. “We really want to just be the announcement that we’re coming back and the arts are still here for everybody, and we want everybody to support us and remember how beneficial and beautiful going to see live art can be.”
The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert played for one night only, September 14, 2021, in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
PBS will broadcast the show on October 1, 2021, at 9 p.m. ET as The Kennedy Center at 50 on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS video app.
For a full list of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season events, click here.
To learn more about the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary, click here.