Sheryl Lee Ralph On What Made Sylvester a Disco Legend

9.1.2014

By Michael Musto

With a new musical, we ponder why he still makes us want to funk

From Left: Kendrell Bowman, Sheryl Lee Ralph & Anthony Wayne | Photo by Nathan 

Way back in 1979, at the height of glitter balls, I interviewed the “queen of disco” Sylvester, a flamboyantly out performer who thrilled dancing crowds with his percolating falsettos on songs like “Do You Wanna Funk” and “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” You couldn’t escape Sly’s piercing vocals, sparkly outfits, and brave demeanor, leaping from the San Francisco-based performance group the Cockettes to center stage as, basically, a drag disco star for the world to die for. And so, expecting something off the Starship Enterprise by way of Studio 54, I was startled with what I actually found in person.

“He was about as outrageous as styrofoam!” I wrote at the time, as I can’t seem to stop reminding people. “When I charged into his room at the Holiday Inn, he was laying on the couch, kvetching about exhaustion, a backache, and his root canal session like a bored Queens housewife.” What’s more, the offbeat recording star put his own tape recorder in front of me and pressed “record” as if to challenge me to misquote him.

Also, he specified that he would only talk about his music, not whom he slept with, and he did so with a grandness that made me feel mighty unreal—and certain that this couldn’t be the actual glitter god of my dancing dreams. Surely this was some pumped-up imposter, a blasé pod who’d kept the real Sylvester hidden somewhere far away, where he was trying to sing gospel through a muzzle.

But no, it was him, and who cared? Beyond my petty grievances, the man was a richly talented force of nature and became the LGBT musical voice of a generation before so sadly dying of AIDS in 1988. Sylvester was so influential that long after disco croaked, they’re still talking about him, and in fact, they’re even doing an off-Broadway show about him—namely Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at Theatre at St. Clement’s.

Anthony Wayne (Pippin, Anything Goes) plays Sylvester, in addition to having written the book and codirected. And Sheryl Lee Ralph is a producer, adding to a diverse career that’s brought her to Broadway (Dreamgirls, Thoroughly Modern Millie), TV (Designing Women, Moesha, and currently, Ray Donovan), and then some. I just talked with Sheryl, Anthony Wayne, and Kendrell Bowman (the show’s costumer/codirector and Wayne’s partner) in a stimulating group chat about shimmery Sylvester that made me wanna funk.

Musto: Hello, everyone. First you, Sheryl. What’s your connection to the wondrous Sylvester?

Sheryl: I knew Sylvester when I was on Broadway doing Dreamgirls, and he was always such an incredible spirit. He was a magpie who was attracted to anything that sparkled and glittered. It was a great friendship. He had hair that was bigger than mine and lashes longer than mine, and his fabulosity was all over the place. I loved his music. I always loved disco. I had one of those hit songs that never seem to go away, which has become a big gay anthem, called “In The Evening.”

Was he personally inspiring to you?

Yes. I believe in the transformational power of the arts. Sylvester was one of those people who lived in his truth long before it was pc. He walked out of his closet and said, “This is me.” When it came to the fight against AIDS, he never backed down. That was an infected man, and he got out there and did whatever he could when he was alive. So many forget that the fight is not over. You’re talking about a man who was born in 1947, and for him to be able to live and step out in his truth, I need people to understand what that means. That’s bravery. That’s living in the light of oneself. That’s why he loved those disco balls.

This is off topic, but how’s it going for you over at Ray Donovan

I’m having the best time. How lucky can one woman get? They talk about this character, Claudette, that I play—they love her, they hate her. And she’s filthy rich. Claudette is the flip side to what I play on Instant Mom for Nickelodeon. A family comedy and an adult family comedy, and then I get to produce Mighty Real. God has been good to me.

You’re my dreamgirl, Sheryl. Now, guys, please tell me what brought you to this project.

Anthony Wayne: What attracted me was the infectious way Sylvester would sing and his strong conviction to be himself. I said to Kendrell, “We could put our minds together and make something that could be impactful.” Sylvester was ahead of his time because now it’s so common. But he did that. He had the freedom to be himself. To be strong enough to carry that out until the end, and people were inspired by it--and people weren’t doing that at that time.

But as I keep bringing up to people, he wasn’t always the warmest tool in the shed.

Anthony Wayne: I’m sure. He’s Sylvester. He could be very difficult at times. He was very confident in knowing who he was. But he had a heart.  He’d pass gifts all the time, taking people shopping.

Kendrell Bowman: He was living in the moment. He wasn’t being groundbreaking, he was being himself. He was already dressing like that with the Cockettes in San Francisco. When he was a young boy, he’d dress up in the home like that, and his mother would let him dress in her clothing. It was not until he got into society that people said, “What’s going on?” 

When Sylvester made it so big, do you think he was amazed at his own success?

Kendrell: I think Sylvester expected to become that famous. He said live onstage, “This is the last time you’ll see me performing with the Cockettes,” and he went on to make himself a star. 

Was it the perfect music for the disco era?

Kendrell: It’s perfect now because I work out to it in the gym! And as the show’s costume designer, I recreated all the great looks. I spent six months making sure I had the right sequins, the right fabrics. I’m gonna make you feel like you’re back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’m gonna win some awards for this one, OK? We didn’t want to see a mockery, so we went into every detail of every iconic look. I looked at every video to make sure. We’ve been working on this project for three years. We want to make sure it’s right. Martha Wash [the Weather Girl who, before that, was one of Sylvester’s Two Tons of Fun backup ladies] saw us do the show at Sirius XL, and she loved it. She retweeted it all over twitter!

Mighty real, guys. Can’t wait to see it. I know it’s not going to be styrofoam!

Photo of Anthony Wayne as Sylvester (in fur) by Walter McBride

Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical begins Sept. 5 in New York City.

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