He was brash and bold, an over-the-top artist whose persona was all his own and well ahead of his time. Sylvester, the 1970s disco sensation behind such megahits as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do You Wanna Funk?” is at the heart of this weekend’s “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical” at Variety Playhouse. Broadway star Anthony Wayne takes on the lead role with iconic actress Sheryl Lee Ralph (Dreamgirls), a producer, and Kendrell Bowman, a co-producer and costume designer who also serves double duty on the project. “Mighty Real” is directed by Wayne and Bowman, with Wayne writing the book. The two men are also romantic partners.
In the musical, Sylvester—who died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 41 in 1988—returns from the dead to perform one final stage performance. What began as a concert version of the show in 2012 is now a full-fledged musical. “Mighty Real” had been selling out every time it is staged, so the pair expanded it in the hopes of taking it off-Broadway and reaching more people.
When it opened off-Broadway last year, it sold out six weeks’ worth of performances and was a New York Times critic’s pick. Preparing for that launch, they brought in Ralph. “We thought she would be perfect,” Bowman said. “She has had her DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware) Foundation for the last 25 years, which she created in memory of the friends she has lost to HIV and AIDS. We knew she would be passionate about the project personally and would want to get the word out.”
Brown reached out to Ralph on Twitter to get her aboard. Ralph remembers it a little differently. “You stalked me on Twitter,” she laughs. Eventually they all met and decided to move forward.
Known for his androgynous appearance, Sylvester was regarded as a trailblazer. “He was one of the first pioneers of people who lived their life out and proud,” says Wayne.
“He was the first disco queen. He has a legacy. We are grateful to pay respect.”
The artist started out in gospel, but had to adapt as techno music became the rage in the 1980s.”He tried to stay with the times,” says Bowman. “He was evolving as an artist, but he realized he needed to be himself.”
For Wayne, it was a lot of work trying to embody all the “isms” Sylvester was known for and not making him into a caricature. “Of course, anyone can just act like somebody, but you have to really embody the passion of who that person is,” says Wayne. “I found myself seeking other parts of his story, speaking to his family and his friends. People gave me a lot of information about him.
”Ralph knew Sylvester and has been happy to share her insight. “From what I saw, it is always a challenge for a human being to be different,” she said. “It was a challenge for him to be a man who preferred to dress in female clothing. It was a challenge for a man to put on a wig and not be Beethoven.”
She has been captivated and impressed by the passion of Bowman and Wayne. ”These young men saw the story of this man that they knew nothing about –because they are young – and the spirit of Sylvester (reached them),” she said. “I knew him and he would love this. He would love the fact that he inspired these two to create what they are doing now. This is a wonderful piece of American life. Sylvester was a trailblazer and he did not care what others said. He was doing Sylvester.”
Working together has been a harmonious experience for all three. Ralph admits they’ve been able to talk and share ideas freely. “We have made this work for the three of us,” she says. “They have done such good work. All I have to do is encourage.” Ralph has long been adored and appreciated by the LGBT community. To her, liking people isn’t something she had to learn. “For me, people always say that to me and I always think to myself, ‘Wow. I never really looked at it like that,’ she said. “I looked at it as just loving people. I was raised in a way that said, ‘Who am I to judge people?’ Judge not lest you be judged. I can never figure out how to not like certain people just because of what others thought. Growing up, I was never the popular girl; I was not Miss This or That until much later in life. I had an incredibly diverse group of friends because that is what I cultivated. I am a lover of people.”
Bringing “Mighty Real” to the ATL was a no-brainer. “Atlanta has a huge population of people who are in love with the kind of music that Sylvester sang,” says Ralph. “Any night, at any number of clubs, you can walk into Atlanta and hear the voice of Sylvester. That is a slam dunk for us. You have to bring the show to the people who get it.”