Kennedy Center Honors, Musical Theater, and Messiah

1990s to present

Behind the scenes preparations for the Kennedy Center Honors

The Kennedy Center Honors is the KCOHO’s most high-profile engagement each season. The gala awards show, often dubbed “Hollywood on the Potomac,” celebrates the careers of legendary performing arts figures, and attracts a “who’s who” from the performing arts, entertainment, and political worlds. The Emmy Award-winning show is taped live in early December and is broadcast on CBS between Christmas and New Year’s; it is viewed by six to nine million viewers each year. The KCOHO has helped honor 205 nominees over the past 40 years.

KCOHO musicians Ally Goodman and Wei-Ping Chou with 2017 Kennedy Center Honoree LL Cool J

The KCOHO serves as the house orchestra for Broadway touring productions as well as Kennedy Center-produced musicals. Touring productions of the last twenty years include virtually every major musical, from classics like South Pacific and The Sound of Music to the hit musical and cultural phenomenon Hamilton.

Former President Michael Kaiser produced and championed the revivals of many beloved musicals including Ragtime and Follies, and brought Broadway icons such as Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Shirley Jones to Kennedy Center stages.

Other musical theater highlights include Oscar and Grammy award winner Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden in Concert (2014), Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star (2015), and the Kennedy Center-produced Sondheim Celebration, a fifteen-week festival featuring six seminal Stephen Sondheim musicals (2002).

KCOHO musicians performed Phantom of the Opera in 2016

The Kennedy Center created the position of Music Director for Musical Theater and Television, which was first held by Kay Cameron, and is currently held by Jay Crowder. 

In 2009, the KCOHO performed on the Concert Hall stage in a musical birthday tribute for Senator Ted Kennedy. Conducted by John Williams, the KCOHO performed alongside an array of celebrities including Lauren Bacall, Bernadette Peters, and singer James Taylor. The highlight of the concert occurred when newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance to conduct the performers and audience in a rendition of Happy Birthday for Senator Kennedy. 

President Barack Obama at the Ted Kennedy Tribute concert 2009

In 2013, the KCOHO performed a hugely successful concert version of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady for the Kennedy Center’s 21st Annual Spring Gala. The production featured some of musical theater’s biggest stars, including Jonathan Pryce, Michael York, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Cloris Leachman, and raised $2.2 million for the Kennedy Center.

September 2017 marked the kick-off of the Kennedy Center’s Bernstein at 100 tribute season. The orchestra took part in a gala evening entitled Bernstein on Broadway, featuring highlights from West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and more. 

One of the orchestra’s favorite and longest-standing traditions is the annual Sing-Along Messiah.  Since 1971 the KCOHO has appeared on the Concert Hall stage to perform Handel’s Messiah to a full house. Even in frigid temperatures audience members wait many hours to secure their chance to enthusiastically sing along in the choruses of Handel’s great work. With superb soloists and an on-stage chorus of 200, this festive event has become one of Washington’s most loved free concerts.