The life of trailblazing disco queen and drag performer Sylvester is being brought to the stage in Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, a new off-Broadway show debuting September 12.
Anthony Wayne (Pippin, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) wrote the show, and also stars as the flamboyant performer. Joining him onstage are Anastacia McCleskey (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, The Book of Mormon) and Jacqueline B. Arnold (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, We Will Rock You) as The Two Tons of Fun/Weather Girls.
Born in Watts, Los Angeles, Sylvester James Jr. started singing in the Pentecostal church, but found his way to San Francisco, where he was embraced by the queer hippie counterculture and joined the avant-garde drag troupe the Cockettes.
Breaking off into a solo act, Sylvester eventually got plugged into the disco scene of the 1970s, adopting a fierce androgynous look and releasing several albums. 1978’s Step II spawned the hits “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” In 1982 he released the dance single “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” which hit the Top 40 in England and the Netherlands.
Dreamgirls star Sheryl Lee Ralph, a close friend of the disco star, is co-producing Mighty Real along with Wayne and costume designer Kendrell Bowman. “[Sylvester] was walking in his truth long before anybody gave him permission, before anybody said it was okay,” Ralph told Centric TV. “He was just being himself and I always admired that about him.”
Ralph says she loved Sylvester for his courage: “You have to think about somebody… who was like ’Guess what? I feel so much better in a beautiful dress and some big hair, and that is how I am greeting the world today.’ That was a brave, gutsy man. I loved that man. He was fabulous.”
Sylvester died of AIDS complications in 1988 at age 41. In 2004, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame.
Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical debuts at the Theatre at St. Clements in New York City on September 14, with previews starting September 5.
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