But for the honorees and the menagerie of lawmakers, donors, artists, colleagues and family members arriving to pay tribute, it was a celebration of not just their legacy, but of the return of their communities and live performances after the pandemic devastated arts industries around the world.
“It’s very special and it’s a different perspective — I get to enjoy, not suffer with nerves,” said Mr. Díaz, who performed during the Kennedy Center’s inaugural year in Ginastera’s “Beatrix Cenci” (and who sang in the first performance at the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966).“It’s like coming home again, except a different part of the house.”
Members of the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” the Broadway musical, sang a cappella on the red carpet in between interviews, before performing in character onstage as part of a tribute to Mr. Gordy. For Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation secretary, and his husband, Chasten, the evening was their first date night since their twins were born. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and a host of bipartisan lawmakers could be seen applauding and dancing in their seats before the end of the night.
“I think I’m in a dream,” Mr. Gordy proclaimed. “And it’s a wonderful dream.”
To honor Ms. Mitchell, the ceremony included Brandi Carlile, a friend and collaborator, performing “River,” Ellie Goulding singing “Big Yellow Taxi,” and Norah Jones performing both “The Circle Game” and “A Case of You.”
Mr. Díaz grew emotional as his daughters, Natascia Díaz and Katya Díaz, sang “En Mi Viejo San Juan,” before excerpts from “Carmen” and “Faust” were performed. Ms. Midler cheered as a trio of her “Hello, Dolly” castmates performed “Friends,” before Billy Porter, the actor and singer, emerged from a clam shell to lead a medley of her songs.
A parade of comedic veterans from S.N.L. alternated between gently ribbing Mr. Michaels, their former — or current — boss, and thanking him for his influence on their careers. It was punctuated by a trio of mock “Weekend Update” segments hosted by Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, and Colin Jost and Michael Che. Paul Simon concluded the tribute to Mr. Michaels with a performance of “America.”