Sylvester: The Mu­si­cal

Broad­way star An­thony Wayne takes on '70s disco sen­sa­tion

GA Voice - - Front Page - By JIM FARMER

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.”

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