POSTED: Sunday, December 4, 2011 - 9:27pm
UPDATED: Sunday, December 4, 2011 - 9:28pm
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama in lauding the actors, musicians and others receiving Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night, also was looking for advice.
"Everybody likes him," Obama said of Yo-Yo Ma, one of the several artists honored. "You've got to give me some tips."
Obama noted that the cellist has appeared on Sesame Street and said, "I thought about asking him to go talk to Congress."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was home for less than 36 hours between diplomatic travels but found time to honor the artists.
On Saturday night, between her historic visit to Myanmar and a trip to Germany to discuss Afghanistan's future, Clinton hosted a dinner for some big names from Broadway, jazz, pop, classical music and Hollywood. Ma, Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Sonny Rollins and Meryl Streep also were saluted by Obama and their fellow artists with tribute performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
After visiting the isolated Southeast Asian country also known as Burma, Clinton said such U.S. artists have worldwide influence by using their freedom of creativity and expression.
"You may not know it, but somewhere in a little tiny room in Burma or even in North Korea, someone is desperately trying to hear you or to see you, to experience you," Clinton told the crowd. "And if they are lucky enough to make that connection, it can literally change lives and countries."
Entertainers who have gathered for the event include Stephen Colbert, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Anne Hathaway and others. A surprise lineup of stars will perform as part of the nation's highest honor for those who have defined American culture through the arts.
CBS will broadcast the show on Dec. 27.
Obama said each was receiving an award, not for a single performance but a lifetime of greatness. "Just to be clear, this doesn't mean that they're over the hill."
Drawing one of the loudest laughs of the evening, Obama made passing reference to Diamond's 70s-era wardrobe, saying, "Now, his shirts aren't as flashy as they used to be. I notice you're buttoned up all the way to the top."
Diamond said it's a "great coincidence" that his work is being honored in a show hosted by Caroline Kennedy. The song "Sweet Caroline" is a story about he and his former wife, but the name is Kennedy's, he said on the red carpet.
"I'm going to have to thank her for that," he said.
Obama said all the honorees felt the need to express themselves and share it.
"That's why we dance, even if, as Michelle says, I look silly doing it," he added to laughter.
In a toast to Streep on Saturday night at the State Department, writer Nora Ephron warned Clinton that the person who would someday play her on screen is the same woman who played Julia Child in "Julie and Julia" and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming "The Iron Lady." Streep stood up for a better look at the nation's top diplomat.
"It's inevitable," Ephron told Clinton, drawing big laughs. "You met her tonight, and I'm sure you thought she was charming, but she was just soaking you up."
Streep, 62, has made more than 45 movies and won two Oscars in a career spanning Shakespeare to ABBA with the movie "Mamma Mia!" For her part, Streep said she is in awe of the accolades.
"Look where we are, look who's here," Streep told The Associated Press. "It's overwhelming. I feel very proud."
While in Washington, she has also met with women in Congress to push for a National Women's History Museum because, "as you'll notice, we don't have one," Streep said.
Emily Blunt, a co-star from "The Devil Wears Prada," said Streep is unique for her devotion to her characters, taking on parts of their personas.
"It's funny, I feel like when we were doing 'The Devil Wears Prada,' she definitely adopted a certain cool on set, sort of remained very much in this reserved territory," Blunt said. "And then when my husband John (Krasinski) worked with her, she was playing a very vivacious, gregarious character, so she was just a ball of fun."
Lionel Richie told the AP that he got into the music business because he wanted to be Diamond.
"He's a great storyteller," Richie said, as with the hit single "America." ''He's not an acrobatic singer. Basically he told the story in a very simple voice."
Ma, one of the best-known classical musicians, has played the cello since he was 4. Now at 56, he is hailed as a musical ambassador whose work has spanned styles around the world from Bluegrass to sounds from the Silk Road. His star power has drawn fans including Colbert, conductor John Williams and even Elmo from "Sesame Street."
"Thank God for Yo-Yo," said Sharon Robinson, a cello player who long played in a quartet with Ma, her husband Jaime Laredo and the late violinist Isaac Stern. "He has spread the love, proselytizing for all kinds of music, particularly classical music."
Cook, 84, made her Broadway debut in 1951 and later had her breakthrough in Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's "Candide." She topped that performance as Marian the Librarian in 1957's hit musical "The Music Man," for which she won a Tony Award.
Glenn Close called Cook an icon for anyone who has worked on Broadway, adding that Cook went on to a successful solo career and is still performing.
"I think we have the biggest respect for her because she really has survived, survived and prevailed," Close said.
Rollins, 81, is a jazz saxophonist has shared the stage with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. He is one of the last surviving giants from the golden era of jazz.
"America is the home of jazz. It's what we started," he said. "By the way, hip hop music is a part of jazz, believe it or not."
Fellow sax player President Bill Clinton said he has been a fan since the age of 15 or 16 when he bought his first Rollins LP and played it until it was worn out.
"His music can bend your mind, it can break your heart, and it can make you laugh out loud," Clinton said. "He has done things with improvisation that really no one has ever done."