Sylvester: A Mighty Real Disco Queen Comes Back to Life on Stage

By BeBe Sweetbriar | bebesweetbriar.com

“You make me feel, mighty real!” Oh, how that lyric line sung by the Queen of Disco Sylvester over a gospel-tinged disco beat made those who heard and danced to it truly feel mighty. That one line can sum up the impact Sylvester had on a generation of club kids, an era of music, and an AIDS-beaten spirit of a community that needed uplifting. Co-Directors/Producers of the off-Broadway hit Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, life partners Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman, are having the same effect on the show’s audiences. Developing the musical from a Sylvester tribute concert, Wayne and Bowman take you on a journey of Sylvester’s life, with all of its ups and downs, in Mighty Real through a 90-minute song set list that makes its audience time-machine back to the 70s and 80s. “It starts with his life growing up in Los Angeles all the way up to him going to San Francisco,” says Bowman. “We paint a whole picture of Sylvester and how he became Sylvester before the world knew him as Sylvester.” The author of the original story, Wayne, a Broadway veteran with roles in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Anything Goes, and Pippin to his credit, portrays Sylvester draped in all the fashionable couture the disco icon became known for, and is joined by fellow Priscilla cast mates Jacqueline B. Arnold and Anastacia McCleskey as they tackle the fabulous essence of Sylvester’s back up gals, Two Tons of Fun (Martha Wash and Izora Armstead).

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When you think of Sylvester’s musical career that was cut all too short by AIDS in 1988, there are only about 3 hits that may readily come to mind to define his modest success, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Dance (Disco Heat), and Do You Wanna Funk. But, Sylvester, the man, was much more than a performer and recording artist. So, Wayne and Bowman use songs of the period to tell Sylvester’s story as a gay icon and trailblazer. “We were trying to take the audience on a journey especially when it came to paying respect to the people Sylvester was influenced by. We weave those songs through the story and it makes perfect sense,” expresses Wayne about the non-Sylvester songs in the show. Songs of the divas that influenced Sylvester and sung by Arnold and McCleskey include Ain’t No Way, Respect, Lady Marmalade, and Proud Mary. With the musical presenting the backdrop story of Two Tons of Fun’s departure from Sylvester, the audience is also blessed with a full rendition of It’s Raining Men.

After sell out houses in its off-Broadway run, Mighty Real comes to San Francisco where Sylvester wore the moniker of the Queen of the Castro alongside his Disco title. In a 3-week engagement at the BRAVA Theater Center beginning February 11, Sylvester comes home! I had an opportunity to speak with Wayne and Bowman while they were in New York preparing for travels to the West Coast, and we spoke about their musical biopic and the positive public acknowledgment they are receiving for recapturing Sylvester’s unapologetic “truth of self” and commitment to being who he was.

BeBe: I remember first hearing of your show Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical and thinking, “Is this going to make its way from off-Broadway to San Francisco? It’s got to come to San Francisco, the land of Sylvester!” The show debuted, what, two years ago?  Kendrell Bowman: Yes, well, we’ve been working on it since 2010-2011, and we opened off-Broadway in September of 2014. We had actually been doing the concert version (Fabulous, One More Time: A Sylvester Concert) of it initially in July 2012.

Looking over the soundtrack album of the show, the songs used in Mighty Real are not all Sylvester songs. So, the show is not just about his stage performances, but also about his entire life through the use of different songs?  Kendrell Bowman: Yes, the show takes you on a journey of Sylvester’s whole life. It starts with his life growing up in Los Angeles all the way up to him going to San Francisco. Some of the songs are speaking of his life and his inspirations and influences. We paint a whole picture of Sylvester and how he became Sylvester before the world knew him as Sylvester.

Was it a long process going through songs that were not Sylvester-specific but relevant in telling the story you wanted to tell? How difficult was it to narrow down the songs that reflected what you wanted to say?  Anthony Wayne:  We already knew the songs we wanted to use in the show. The songs and there placement in the show kind of evolved as we were discussing the book (of the show). As Kendrell was saying, we were trying to take the audience on a journey, especially when it came to paying respect to the people Sylvester was influenced by. We weave those songs through the story and it makes perfect sense. It’s such a good time.

Now I know how difficult it is sometimes to get a live cast album recorded from one show. Did you have to put together the Mighty Real cast soundtrack album from various performances throughout the show’s run in New York?  Kendrell Bowman: No, we just seemed to hit it at the right time. That was all one live performance. We just say okay, we’re going to turn up these mics, and y’all better drink your tea …… (plenty of laughter).

I just want to know who is hitting that Cissy Houston note (high C) on Ain’t No Way? (more laughter)  Kendrell Bowman: That’s Jacqueline B. Arnold who plays Martha Wash (Two Tons of Fun) in the show.

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Kendrell, I am aware that by day, shall we say, you are a celebrity and recording-artist stylist and image consultant. Sylvester was known for his fabulousness in his dress and presentation of himself, and I am sure the show represents that in its costuming. But before he became the Queen of Disco that he became, his appearance was more full-on drag queen-like than the androgynous look most people in the public are familiar with. Do you show this period in the show at all?  Kendrell Bowman:  Of the drag queen period with Sylvester, we talk about that in the show, but there is so much to pack into a 90-minute show with no intermission, that we don’t have an opportunity to change (him) into full-out drag. He is definitely portrayed more androgynously which represented most of what people could remember about Sylvester. We speak about his time with the Cockettes, but we didn’t go into his look of the period. There are so many fabulous looks of Sylvester that we had to choose from that we had to find the most iconic ones of the different time periods. So we give you looks that you might notice from the Mighty Real music video. We give you his kimono. We give you some fur pieces. And, we give you some of his androgynous leather looks. But we don’t take you into the looks of when he was doing Billie Holiday.

As you were in the process of presenting the show in its present form post concert period, was there a desire to come to San Francisco, the place where Sylvester was rooted, earlier in the show’s debut period? I mean, many a Broadway shows, Wicked , Mamma Mia! and the new Bob Dylan musical, Forever Young, for example, have debuted in San Francisco before going onto Broadway.  Anthony Wayne: We knew that San Francisco was a place that we had to come to. It was very important that we were here in New York City putting it on off-Broadway. San Francisco was always on the trajectory. I guess it was all about timing and making sure things were right.

The cast that make up Mighty Real the musical is quite intimate, right? There is only 4 or 5 of you in the show?  Anthony Wayne: Yes, correct.

With the cast being intimate, how intimate do you make the audience feel? I mean, does the audience play a major part in the show?  Kendrell Bowman: The audience is essentially like a prop in the show. The audience plays a major part in the show. It is not a stereotypical type of musical you go to. After the first song, everyone is involved in the show. It’s like a party. Even the set is like being in a night club in the 70s. The music is playing the moment theaudience walks through the doors. So, it has a different type of setting than your typical musical.

How did Sheryl Lee Ralph, of the original ‘Dreamgirls’ on Broadway, become a part of this production as a co-producer?  Anthony Wayne: Well, social media was a big part of us getting the word out: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We were on Twitter spreading the word and she responded to a tweet. We began tweeting back and forth until we exchanged numbers, and after we spoke on the phone, Kendrell and I were on our way to meet with her in Philadelphia the next day. The rest is pretty much history.

Anthony, you’ve done so much on stage, on and off Broadway  in New York, and one of the persons you list as an influence for you as a performer is Sammy Davis, Jr. As the creator of Mighty Real, a musical biopic, I can’t help but wonder if there is something in you that may want to tell Sammy’s story through song?  Anthony Wayne: He and I are too different. Our styles are different. He is a little shorter than me. He had a very humpback style of tapping. I just see his bravado when it comes to going against the grain just like with Sylvester, especially when it came to racial issues with the Rat Pack and other issues in his life. I was inspired by his courage to keep moving forward. Do I think there is something I would want to do with his story? I don’t know. There’s a possibility. But right now, we are just trying to get Sylvester’s story out there through Mighty Real to let people know how we are paying homage to this incredible human being.

In the later part of 2014, you, Anthony, were named one of OUT Magazine’s Top 100 Out People. What does that designation and notoriety mean to you?  Anthony Wayne: Well, first I think as a young African American male, as well as with Kendrell, it really made me feel excited to know that people noticed something within myself and Kendrell that we developed and created from the ground up. We worked really, really hard. All the work we’ve done from developing the character, writing, everything from the ground up, putting the word out there, and getting the show to where it is right now. It is really exciting that OUT has recognized myself to be a part of the Top 100 Out People. But, I know that when you recognize myself, you’re recognizing everything we’ve done. You recognize the show. You recognize Kendrell. You recognize my make-up artist. You recognize my costume designer. You recognize everybody who is a part of what we are doing. It’s encouraging to know we are on the right track.

Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman’s Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical comes to San Francisco to the BRAVA Theater Center on February 11 through March 1. Tickets and more information at www.brava.org.

Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical (Original Cast Recording) now available on iTunes.

Follow Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at www.fabuloussylvester.com

1 Comment on Sylvester: A Mighty Real Disco Queen Comes Back to Life on Stage

  1. Fantastic Q and A can’t wait to see this show!

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