The red carpet before Sunday night's Kennedy Center Honors is the first peek at the A-list talent – typically, an eclectic, genre-spanning roster that's usually kept well under wraps for dramatic effect – enlisted to pay tribute to the evening's honorees. So when tuxedos and evening gowns started showing up in front of the cameras, the big question was: Just how did you get that night going to get?
Author Ron Chernow, whose book was inspired by the musical "Hamilton", was among the first notables we spotted. Although he was eager to talk on the topic, he was interested in what he was planning for when he took the internship at the White House correspondents' dinner next year, where he's the entertainment in place of the traditional comedian. So? He's "jotted down some notes," Chernow allowed, but otherwise is keeping the act under wraps.
Offering up a more immediate preview was musician St. Vincent, who would be performing a guitar piece by the producer-rapper Tricky in honor of composer Phillip Glass. Meanwhile, "Law and Order" actress S. Epatha Merkerson strolled by, and dancer-choreographer-previous honored Carmen de Lavallade swept past, her dramatic black ball skirt swishing.
A jukebox's worth of country stars, presumably there to pay homage to singer-actress Reba McEntire, a recipient of one of the Kennedy Center's medals. We are members of Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, and Brooks & Dunn. Pop singer Kelly Clarkson was gushing over McEntire, apparently spilling the beans that she would be performing in her honor (Kelly, it's supposed to be a surprise!), And. . . wait, rumor that Cyndi Lauper was in the building.
By then, the forecast was getting clearer: It was going to be a starry night, indeed.
We chatted up soul legend Sam Moore, who wore a black velvet tuxedo blazer, rhinestone-encrusted loafers and the comfortable air of a KenCen Honors veteran – which he is. He thinks this might be his seventh time at the gala. How is this one different? The "Soul Man" vocalist says he's so over President Trump casting a shadow over the night. The trumps made history by the president of the chamber of honor, the first time in the year, the first time in the year said they did not want to wait at White House reception. This year, the Trumps again declined.
"I'm not going to show because [of] Trump, '"Moore said." Cut this out! It's not about him – it's about the artist being honored.
Politics seemed the furthest thing from actress Melissa Peterman's mind. She was there to honor her "Reba" co-star McEntire, and she said the hardest part of prepping for the night was paring down material from 17 years of friendship with the country singer in the 90 seconds the showrunners allotted her. She jokes that she's recycling what got left on the room floor. "I could talk about her for six hours." Peterson said. "Actually I'm working on a one-woman show. It's called 'Reba! What do you want to know? "
And you might think that the "Hamilton" folks would be pretty tired of collecting accolades for the show. But with a Grammy, Pulitzer Prize, multiple Tonys and Drama Desk awards, a KenCen Honor will continue the trend of keeping Manhattan shelf-builders booked solid.
Chris Jackson, who played George Washington in the original cast, told us that this night was special – and he was dressed to produce a diamond tuxedo and diamond stud earrings. "It's not just another night. It's not just another place, "said Jackson of the impressive coming.
Eventually, the carpet was lighting up with honorees themselves, who were preparing for an evening that usually plays a song-and-dance version of "This Is Your Life" with cameras catching their every reaction.
Glass was self-effacing, praising fellow jazz musician designees Wayne Shorter and singer-actress Dear. "I'm delighted to be apart from it," he said. "I'm not sure why I'm here."
"Hamilton" composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, fresh from a media blitz around his new film, "Mary Poppins Returns," was politely keeping the Washington press corps germ-free. He was set to be honored alongside "Hamilton" director Thomas Kail, music director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. "You do not want to shake my hand," Miranda warned reporters. "I'm sick."
McEntire arrived in royal royal gown and signed fiery curls. She professed herself to be "thrilled," and unlike many recipients who claim that they'd never dreamed of such an honor, which is long gone to join the Kennedy Center's ranks. "I've been wanting this for a long time," she said. "It's like being part of a club. I'm not taking this for granted at all. "
Finally, Dear Rolled Up In The Most Dear Possible Manner (that is, highly anticipated, with no less than seven leather belts cinching her waist), and declared herself to be in the "who, me?" Camp, mostly because she thought she was a little out there for the august honor.
"I was never expecting this," she said. And she answered the doubtless question on everyone's lips: What would she have said to President Trump, if the night had actually come into contact with the target of so many of her critical tweets? Her answer was as succinct as her catchy pop lyrics: "Oh, go away."