As far back as I can remember, The Kennedy Center Honors was something I looked forward to every December. My excitement was shared by my family, especially my brother Corky. We thought it was the best show on television and we faithfully marked the date on our calendars. Imagine my thrill when Mel Brooks – certainly a National treasure – was selected as an honoree and I was asked to direct his tribute for the televised gala.
Each year the Kennedy Center celebrates five extraordinary individuals who have made significant contributions to our culture. Joining Mel that year were jazz great Dave Brubeck, the illustrious opera singer Grace Bumbry, the incomparable actor Robert Dinero, and "The Boss" himself, Bruce Springsteen. A spectacular lineup of artists.
The weekend-long ceremony takes place in Washington, D.C. and includes the Chairman's luncheon, State Department dinner, White House reception, culminating in a gala performance followed by supper. To make the event even more remarkable, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama were on hand to celebrate these distinguished talents. For three full days, I was surrounded by a phenomenal group of people who have brought so much joy to my life.
At the White House reception, the President places the rainbow-colored ribbon – symbolizing the spectrum of talents honored – around the neck of each renowned honoree. In his remarks that year, President Obama said, "In times of war and sacrifice, the arts – and these artists – remind us to sing and to laugh and to live. In times of plenty, they challenge our conscience and implore us to remember the least among us. In moments of division or doubt, they compel us to see the common values that we share; the ideals to which we aspire, even if we sometimes fall short. In days of hardship, they renew our hope that brighter days are still ahead."
At one point, President Obama introduced Vice President Joe Biden and Mel yelped "Wow!" It received lots of laughter. As the President continued, speaking about Dave Brubeck, Mel again chimed in, saying with a smile, "He never understood 4/4 time!" That also received a gleeful roar.
President Obama described Mel Brooks as "born to entertain", adding that "many of the punch lines that have defined Mel Brooks’ success cannot be repeated here." Once more, a giant laugh.
For the dinner hosted by the Secretary of State, each honoree is asked to choose one person to speak for them. Mel chose me. I was honored to sing his praises, but could not believe I would be speaking right after Hillary Clinton. At the top of the evening, I shook hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton and proceeded to walk circles around the buffet table, practicing my speech under my breath. Anyone who saw me must have thought I was obsessed with the shrimp cocktail. This was the most nervous I have ever been to deliver a speech. I started off with, "I don’t know anyone who loves being themselves as much as Mel Brooks loves being Mel Brooks." That got a laugh, putting me very much at ease for the rest of my speech.
At the gala performance, I was so happy to look up and see Mel in the presidential box along with his fellow honorees – exactly where he belonged. I could tell he, too, was happy and, perhaps for the first time, humbled.
For Mel’s tribute, I put together a medley that celebrated the songs he had written and made iconic. Carl Reiner, another comic genius and Mel’s best friend, started us off by saluting Mel. Then came the singing and dancing – Frank Langella entered and sang "Hope for the Best (Expect the Worst)" from Twelve Chairs, backed by four male dancers.
HOPE FOR THE BEST, EXPECT THE WORST
SOME DRINK CHAMPAGNE, SOME DIE OF THIRST
NO WAY OF KNOWING WHICH WAY IT'S GOING
HOPE FOR THE BEST, EXPECT THE WORST!
Next funny man Martin Short came riding in on a fake horse singing "He Rode a Blazing Saddle" with four dancing cowgirls at his side. Martin was followed by Jack Black bouncing onstage dressed as Robin Hood, singing and dancing "Men in Tights". Harry Connick Jr. sang "High Anxiety" atop a scissor lift that took him higher and higher as he become more and more hilariously acrophobic. Richard Kind gave a fantastic rendition of "The Inquisition" from History of the World: Part 1. Dressed as Torquemada, Richard strutted his stuff in front of a lineup of nuns who shed their black garb to reveal the famous William Ivey Long "Pearl Girl" costumes from The Producers: The Movie Musical.
When I first met with the show’s producers, I told them I assumed they didn’t want me to do "Springtime for Hitler". On the contrary. "We absolutely want you to include 'Springtime for Hitler'", they said. So, to my surprise, I found myself calling Broadway’s Gary Beach and telling him, "Suit up – you’re going in!" The talented Matthew Morrison played the Lead Tenor and sang and danced his way into Mel’s heart. When Gary appeared as Roger De Bris dressed in his Hitler costume, I was holding my breath. But the audience loved it, laughing hysterically as Gary danced about the stage singing lyrics like "I’m the German Ethel Merman Don’t Cha Know!"
At the end of the medley, Matthew Broderick sang "'Til Him", a beautiful ballad Mel wrote for Leo Bloom to sing to Max Bialystock in the Broadway musical of The Producers. That night onstage at the gala, Matthew sang the song to Mel Brooks. As he sang, the beautiful and talented Angie Schworer, dressed as Ulla, spun around a series of set pieces, each one a cut-out image of Mel in his most famous roles – King Louis XVI from History of the World: Part 1, Governor Lepetomane from Blazing Saddles, and Yogurt from Spaceballs. Each time Matthew sang the lyric "'Til Him", another wonderful character would spin around.
NO ONE EVER MADE ME FEEL LIKE SOMEONE
LIFE WAS REALLY NOTHING, BUT A GLUM ONE
MY EXISTENCE BORDERED ON THE TRAGIC
ALWAYS TIMID, NEVER TOOK A CHANCE
THEN I FELT HIS MAGIC AND MY HEART BEGAN TO DANCE
At the end of the number, the cast made their way to the edge of the stage and lifted their glorious voices up to Mel, seated proudly in his presidential box. My eyes teared up watching that group of seasoned performers, the delighted audience, and the smiling President of the United States giving so much love to Mel.
After the show, the President and First Lady came backstage to meet everyone. An unforgettable moment as they shook hands and heaped accolades on every cast member. When he reached Gary Beach and his Hitler costume, President Obama called out, "I hope nobody is taking a picture of this!"
Putting together this tribute was a joy every step of the way. Being at the White House, meeting so many fascinating people, knowing I was part of this very important institution’s extraordinary celebration of the Arts filled me with pride. Plus I got to buy three different gowns and a cocktail dress! No way I could show up wearing my usual uniform of black dancewear. This was beyond special.
Mel says he "unearths the truth that is all around us." Truths about racism, sexism, and antisemitism. President Obama stated Mel has been called "our jester, asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane."
Later, at the supper after the gala, Mel approached the President to thank him. He said, "You know, I wrote a movie one time that has a story very similar to yours – a black sheriff comes to town to do good for the people. He was met with disdain." President Obama laughed. Mel patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don’t worry, it all works out in the last frame."
Direction by Louis J. Horvitz
Co-Produced by Susan Stroman
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Lighting Design by Robert A. Dickinson
Sound Design by Joseph William Foley
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Musical Direction by Rob Berman and Rob Mathes
Premiere: December 6, 2009
Full Credits: IMDb