Remembering Queer Icon Sylvester, Disco's Most Unsung Hero

We talked to the creators of “Mighty Real,” a soon-to-be Broadway musical about the life of the late androgynous legend.

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Jun 27 2016, 8:34am

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This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here. Today, we talked to Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman, two New Yorkers who raised money via Kickstarter to produce a musical about the legacy of late queer disco-icon, Sylvyester.

In the years since Sylvester's death from complications of AIDS in 1988, his 1978 single, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," has proven to be one of the most enduring hits of the disco era—perhaps you even heard its rollicking basslines and cosmic arpeggios in a Target commercial at some point. And it's well deserved, as the ecstatic track, along with others like Donna Summer's ubiquitous "I Feel Love," helped popularize Hi-NRG; a style that coupled disco-rooted sounds with stimulating electronic instrumentation built for a glamorous dance party. But while Summer went on to be one of the most recognizable musicians of all time—Sylvester, though awarded the key to the city of San Francisco in his day, simply didn't.

The genre-bending singer came to fame in an era where being an openly gay musician carried an even heftier stigma than it often still does today. But Sylvester was always unmoved, and lived an androgynous lifestyle that was uninterested in being labeled. "I am Sylvester," he would simply answer when asked about his allegiance to any particular sexuality, or labeling of "drag queen." His raucous performance style, vibrant outfits, and piercing falsetto, were just as courageous. But for some reason, outside of the success of "You Make Me Feel," his fame didn't live on in the mainstream following his death—an unfortunate reality for many queer artists who died during the 80s AIDS crisis.

Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman are looking to change that. The pair started their careers in Broadway and fashion, respectively, and were like many from a younger generation who missed out on the prime of Sylvester's career. In 2011, when Wayne and Bowman met, Anthony was working as a "chorus boy" on Broadway, and became frustrated about the lack of roles for black actors on Broadway. After seeing a TV documentary about Sylvester, the pair were inspired by his fearless individuality and sprawling discography. They decided to create an entire musical about his life. Wayne would star as Sylvester in the musical, while Bowman headed up directing duties, and their first production opened in 2012 at New York's Le Poisson Rouge only a year after they first met.

Thus came Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, a Kickstarted production whose Off-Broadway run started in 2014 in New York, and eventually hit San Francisco (Sylvester's home for 19 years), Washington D.C, and Miami. The musical garnered positive early reviews from The New York Times, and now plans to open on Broadway proper in 2017. As part of Pride Weekend here on THUMP, we talked to Wayne and Bowman about all things Sylvester.

THUMP: Can you tell me a bit about how this whole thing came together?

Kendrell Bowman: Anthony and I got together five years ago. At the time I was working in fashion, and he was on Broadway as a chorus boy. He was frustrated because there weren't any roles for African American men. Eventually we both were inspired by a Sylvester documentary we saw on television. Anthony then had an idea about doing a show on his life and music, came to me, and we both said we wanted to do it. We went to a lot of producers to ask for help in creating Mighty Real, but everyone at the time wasn't interested in doing a show that spread awareness about things like HIV and AIDS, and that also focuses on such a flamboyant figure. So Anthony and I decided to produce the show ourselves, and went to Kickstarter to fund it. We raised over $80,000, which allowed us to do do it. After opening in New York we went to DC and Miami with a sold-out run. Now we're coming back home to open on Broadway. We've gotten support from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Sheryl Lee Ralph, who's also now working with us. Since then we've been spreading the legacy of Sylvester non-stop.

Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman.

Do you find it interesting that you both hadn't really heard of Sylvester before you saw the documentary?

K: Not really, we're younger [laughs].

Anthony Wayne: Yeah, we weren't really around during his time. But his music is very influential, and you can still hear it in music today. Lil' Kim even sampled him in a song.

I'm probably a bit jaded—I'm a little obsessed with disco. What was it about his music and persona that first spoke to you?

A: We started to see how resilient he was as a person, in a time when people weren't going against the grain. Because of his legacy, now there are others out there who are loud and proud of who they want to be regardless of the situations. You have RuPaul, you had Boy George, but before there was Sylvester. We wanted people to know that you have that courage inside you; you can be that person, you can be resilient, you can be strong regardless of what you've gone through. Sylvester went through a lot of adversity, and we're still dealing with that when it comes to personal freedom. That's the parallel we saw. We're all on this earth together—so why don't we find harmony?

K: We also saw the strength of his individuality. A lot of people feel the need to be put into a box rather than be themselves. We want to encourage everyone to be confident in their sexuality, and wake up and see themselves how they want to.

I can imagine with what happened in Orlando, everything you've done with the show has to hit home even more. What do you think Sylvester would be doing if he was around to witness what happened?

A: Music is very powerful and influential across the board—it has every emotion that you can feel from the top to bottom. Now there are a lot of people making songs about unity and coming together. I think Sylvester would be one of those standing up—loud and proud—saying "we are together and you are resilient."

What kind of people usually come to see the show?

K: It's unlike any other Broadway show that you''ll go to; the demographic in the audience is a total melting pot. It's not a gay show, or straight show, or young or old show—it's just people who love music. The great thing about that is we get the chance to bring all types of people together in one room and educate and inspire them.

I know that Sylvester left all of his record proceeds to various AIDS charities. Has the musical been involved in continuing that part of his legacy?

K: Very involved, and before we opened we got a lot of support from that community. We donate a percent to Sheryl Lee Ralph's DIVA foundation; the longest running AIDS concert from the past 25 years. We do certain other things across the community to let people know they're not alone and that we know the stigma is still alive. We need to make sure our voice can be heard not only locally but also nationally. I feel like it's our responsibility as artists to use our platform to do that. It was inspiring to see people like Nicki Minaj come out and talk about the Orlando. We emailed our whole mailing list to let people know how they can donate blood and money to help the tragedy.

The last thing I need to know is what are your favorite Sylvester songs?

A: I really like "Can't Stop Dancing," it's upbeat, fun, and just exciting. When we sing it in the show you can see people who want to just jump out of their seats. Especially people who were from that time period and went to Studio 54—they just want to sping their flags and blow their whistles. They get transported back to that time.

K: My favorite is "Over and Over." Ashford and Simpson originally wrote it, but Sylvester put a spin on it. Even the background noise is my favorite—all the and I often work out to it in the gym. Then of course "Mighty Real." You see both 70 year-olds and younger people dancing together. It's just infectious.

For more info on Mighty Real head to www.FabulousSylvester.com.