The man who wrote and sang the most recorded song in history. Another who created songs people hum while leaving Broadway theaters. The woman whose talk show became TV's most influential.
Paul McCartney, Jerry Herman and Oprah Winfrey join country crooner Merle Haggard and choreographer Bill T. Jones on CBS' "The 33rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors" Tuesday, Dec. 28. The honorees sit with President and Mrs. Obama while artists interpret their work.
As highly successful people, all are accustomed to accolades. This, though, is different.
"It's impossible to describe," says Herman, who composed "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" "It is so the ultimate award that any American can receive. It took my breath away.
"People have said to me through the past decade, 'Why haven't you received this?' And I have said, 'If it is meant to happen, it will happen at the right time,' " Herman continues. "And this is the right time because I have gotten all the show business awards, and I don't mean, in any way, to denigrate them; it was such a thrill to receive the lifetime (achievement) Tony that I thought that was it. I said to Terry (Marler, his longtime partner) and to all my family and friends, 'This is the ultimate award that the business can give me.' And of course I never thought that anything would top all of that, but this has. And that's why this is the right time -- because if it happened five years ago, the other awards would have been an afterthought."
Herman, like Mel Brooks last year and fellow 2010 honoree Jones, just wants to help with the show. After all, they each mention separately that no one knows their work better than they do.
George A. Stevens Jr., co-producer, writer and co-founder of the honors, somehow manages to keep who is performing a secret. A committee of about 100 artists recommends potential honorees to an executive committee, which chooses representatives from various disciplines.
Stevens cites two who weren't that interested in the honor. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz's demands of accepting it only at 4 p.m. on a Sunday and alone resulted in him not becoming an honoree. Katharine Hepburn, Stevens notes, was "reluctant."
The great Kate repeatedly told him, " 'It's just too painful. I don't go out,' " Stevens recalls.
People were clamoring for her to be honored, and she kept insisting she didn't go out. Then Stevens saw her on another TV show and called her.
" 'Now what am I going to say to these people?' " Stevens recalls he said to Hepburn, who accepted the honor in 1990. "And I heard these words coming out of my mouth: 'We have been hearing for so long about this Yankee fiber of yours. Why don't you just summon some of your Yankee fiber and say yes?' There was a ghastly pause and a snarled 'yes,' and she hung up."
Most people, however, react as the poetic choreographer Jones did -- with complete delight. "And I thought, 'Do they really mean me?' " he says of receiving the call.His dances are the soaring result of intellect and bravery, interpreting slavery and AIDS, politics and love. He weaves the spoken word into different genres of dance set to a spectrum of music. A recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and two Tony Awards -- for choreographing "Spring Awakening" and "Fela!" -- Jones reflects on what makes the Kennedy Center Honors special.
"Please, don't get me started," he says. "I get so emotional. It is during this administration -- I don't even understand how big it is. It is truly the highest honor our government can bestow on an artist."
Jones has met Winfrey, and McCartney years ago wandered into one of Jones' rehearsals at the National Opera House in Lyon, France, but the two never met. Jones, like Herman, did not know the others.
They will know one another well by the end of the first weekend of December. Their schedule calls for a reception, luncheon, then a black tie State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The next day is a brunch, then a White House reception, which the president and first lady host. The gala performance, taped Dec. 5, is followed by a dance.
While firming up the details for what's consistently television's classiest show, Stevens says, "The most difficult part is the expectations of the audience, particularly the audience here at the Kennedy Center, who pay obscene amounts of money for the privilege of sitting in the audience. And almost every year they say, 'Oh, my God, this was the best!' We try to be as creative as we can and rely on the diminished memory of our audience to exceed the previous year."