The Kennedy Center Honors Gala saluted five legendary artists on Sunday night, the extravaganza unfolding with First Lady Michelle Obama and one late arrival: President Obama, who appeared after his speech to the nation on the mass shooting in San Bernardino and terrorism.
Filmmaker George Lucas, actresses Cicely Tyson and Rita Moreno, singer-songwriter Carole King and conductor Seiji Ozawa were heralded during a splashy holiday spectacle, one hosted by Stephen Colbert and filled with political, business and entertainment titans.
Colbert acknowledged the dignitaries and diplomats on hand as well as the "small handful of you not running for president right now." Then he had a question for the crowd: "Can anyone get me tickets to 'Hamilton?'"
The "Late Show" host may not have gotten those tickets to the red-hot Broadway musical, but new Kennedy Center Honors producers Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner tried to deliver some surprises. The list of stars paying tribute to the night's honorees was practically a state secret.
Secretary of State John Kerry began the homage to King, saying she was more than a celebrity — and more than the writer of 400 compositions (including 100 hit singles) sung by more than 1,000 artists.
"She lives the word 'citizen,'" Kerry said, noting her work against climate change, women's rights, justice and peace. The black-tie crowd thundered when James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Janelle Monae and Sara Bareilles — plus cast members from "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" — performed some of King's hits including "You've Got a Friend," "Up on the Roof," "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" and "I Feel the Earth Move."
A showy special-effects segment honored Lucas, the man behind the blockbuster franchise and pop culture phenomenon that is "Star Wars." As a director he hit the big-time with "American Graffiti" in 1973. Later he helped to dream up the adventures of Indiana Jones, launching another powerhouse series. And he pioneered the development of digital technology in editing, sound, scanning, projection and cameras.
"He changed movies absolutely forever," Steven Spielberg told the crowd.
In 2012 Lucas retired from corporate life to focus on philanthropy and education and to shepherd a gargantuan museum for his film and art collection in Chicago.
Martin Scorsese also lauded Lucas, as did Carrie Fisher, who appeared via video. The stage tribute drew two galactically renowned droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and several fearsome Stormtroopers.
In taped remarks, Lucas reminded: "The bright side of the Force is love. The dark side of the Force is hate. So stick to the bright side."
Tyson and Moreno were applauded for decades of electrifying work and for paving the way for younger performers of color.
Actress Kerry Washington hailed Tyson by saying she "does not merely act. She delves. She soars. She sings. She vibrates."
When Tyson performed "The Trip to Bountiful" on Broadway, audiences couldn't help but sing along with her to the hymn "Blessed Assurance."
"We sang with you, we clapped with you. We worshipped you right there in the theater," which became a "sacred space," Washington said.
CeCe Winans did a rousing version of the hymn, joined by a choir from Tyson's community school for the performing arts in East Orange, N.J.
Moreno moved from Puerto Rico to New York's Spanish Harlem as a child, overcoming odds and stereotypes to join a rare group of entertainers by collecting an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony for her diverse work. "Jane the Virgin" star Gina Rodriguez, actress Rosie Perez, "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tony winner Karen Olivo all paid tribute.
Ozawa, who for 29 seasons was maestro of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was extolled in remarks by soprano Renee Fleming and in performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The Eagles, famous for their Southern California sound, would have been honored but for the illness of founder Glenn Frey. The band is expected to be honored next year. Paying tribute this year, however, was a surprise guest: Miranda Lambert, who performed "Desperado."
After 38 years, 198 performers have been given Kennedy Center honors for lifetime contributions to American culture — music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures or television.
Passion is one trait they share. Longevity is another.
Moreno said her award was payback for her show business beginnings. She didn't make it big until she was about 30, when she portrayed Anita in the film version of "West Side Story."
"It's kind of a reward, a recompense, not for the obvious things, but for all the hard work, falling down and getting up and persevering," she said in an interview. "All those years of struggle, the challenges to my dignity, all of those things. That's what it means."
The show will air on CBS on Dec. 29.