In the late 1970s disco was king, and Sylvester James was its reigning queen. The cross-dressing, frequently be-sequined pop icon had number one hits such as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Disco Heat.” But due to his premature death in 1987 year from AIDS-related complications many younger dance babes never knew the larger than life icon. Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman hope to do something about this.
Fittingly, the partners are mounting a musical inspired by the life and art of Sylvester. Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, which opened in New York last month and comes to the Brava Theatre Friday, uses the star’s music to bring him to life for a whole new audience. The musical, which was also produced by TV star Sheryl Lee Ralph, tells the story of the trailblazing disco star through story, song, heels, furs, strutting, mirror balls, and a ton of fun or two. (Sylvester’s backup singers, “Two Tons o’ Fun,” went on to become the Weather Girls of “It’s Raining Men” fame.)
While an international star, Sylvester is also a homegrown San Francisco hero. Born in LA, San Francisco became the musician’s adopted home. Early in his career, he performed with the radical queer theater troupe The Cockettes and recorded records at Fantasy Records. After the death of his partner, Sylvester also chose the Castro to spend his final days. In 1988, the Castro Street Fair was dedicated to his memory and, more recently, he’s featured in the Castro’s brand new Rainbow Honor Walk.
To honor Sylvester and welcome the cast of Mighty Real, Supervisor Scott Weiner will present a proclamation naming Friday “Mighty Real Day.” There will be a short ceremony in the Castro at 2 p.m. Friday.
Mission Local talked with Anthony Wayne, who directed the show and plays Sylvester, and his partner Kendrell Bowman, a producer and costume designer for Mighty Real, as they prepared for their West Coast debut.
Mission Local: This might be an incredibly obvious question, given his apparent fabulousness, but what inspired you to create a disco musical about Sylvester?
Anthony Wayne: We were inspired by this TV show called on Unsung. They did this huge special about Sylvester’s life. I remember thinking how inspiring and how courageous he was. So, we decided to do one evening performance of his music at Poisson Rouge in New York in July 2012. From that first night, it was as if a disco bomb had exploded in New York City. People loved it, and wanted to see it again. So, we put our minds together and put together great show.
ML: What about Sylvester captivated you?
AW: His perseverance to be great, to do the things he wanted to do regardless of what other people wanted from him. He was just all about him having freedom to do what he wanted to do. Now we have Big Freedia, Adam Lambert, and Rupual, but for him to make the choices that he did back then, it was something different.
ML: What was the most challenging part of bringing Sylvester to life on stage?
Kendrell Bowman: The most challenging thing when you’re doing anyone’s life story is to make sure you have all the great iconic moments and take them on a journey. You only have 90 minutes of stage time so you just have to be very selective.
ML: If you had more stage time, what would you have included in the show that ultimately had to get cut?
KB: Well, more costumes, for one. We have a lot of costumes in this show already, but we would have given you even more looks with more time… While we do go into depth about his time in the Cockettes, I wish we had dedicated more parts of the show to talk about that part of his life.
ML: What’s the secret to getting the character of Sylvester, who is so larger than life and over the top, right? How do you embody Sylvester on stage?
AW: It takes time to build that character work. Thankfully, it’s been three years of development, and we’ve been able to talk to family and friends, we’ve read all about him. We’ve done all the groundwork to really embody somebody. I’m trying to bring out the passion and essence of who Sylvester truly was behind the glitz and glamour. I’ve been really grateful to be able to talk the people that actually knew him.
ML: You opened in NYC, but the show is now making its San Francisco debut with a splash—Sylvester is even getting a day dedicated to him and a ceremony at his square on the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro. Obviously, Sylvester had some deep Bay Area roots.Was it important to you to perform in San Francisco for these reasons?
KB: We’ve been preparing for a San Francisco audience from the beginning. This was is his stomping grounds. It’s important for us to be very true to Sylvester’s world. He found himself here and felt free. It was his home, that’s very true. We’re trying to incorporate the historic places that Sylvester performed to make people who were there feel like they’re part of it. For people who lived through that time, we also want to bring part of their life on stage. We want it to be a very personal, almost a nightclub experience, from beginning to end.
ML: Sylvester rocked a lot of amazing looks. Which was your favorite and why?
KB: All the looks in this show,were iconic looks of Sylvester. We were very specific, we took looks from different periods of his career and life. For the “Mighty Real” number, the white suit is fantastic and iconic. Though, my favorite look is the furs. It’s the way Anthony brings it to life. He’s twisting them and tearing it up on stage, whipping them around. It’s larger than life!… Though, my favorite accessory is the fans. You’ve got to have fan, darling.
ML: While a huge icon in his own time, Sylvester isn’t as well known now, though the sounds from 70s and 80s dance music certainly are having a comeback. So my question is, will disco ever die?
AW and KW: No!
AW: We did this show at the Gramercy in New York and we just had so many people from so many ages, sizes, skin colors and demographics, all dancing to disco. It’s incredible. Everybody has great time when disco is playing.
Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical will be partying at the Brava Theater now until March 1st, Wednesday to Sunday at 8 p.m. with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets can be purchased here. For more information visit www.fabuloussylvester.com.
Check out the Mighty Real trailer here:
…And the ever so mighty real Sylvester in action: