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Exclusive: Sheryl Lee Ralph Talks Mighty Real

On May 25, Broadway Black met with Sheryl Lee Ralph backstage at Washington DC’s Howard Theatre before the one night only performance of Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, that is being presented in collaboration with Ms. Ralph and her D.I.V.A. Foundation.

Broadway Black {BB}: What is your connection to Sylvester and how did you become a collaborator for Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical?

Sheryl Lee Ralph {SLR}: I’m so excited to be here and doing this show because as a young Dreamgirl on Broadway, I knew Sylvester back in the day. Sylvester was there in all of his fabulosity, loving the show. He was always giving one message: don’t be more fabulous than me! But it was always and only with love so, for me, it was a great thing. We lost Sylvester far too soon and way too early to AIDS. It was very sad. He left New York, he was back in California and it was just a sad, sad loss of an incredible talent.

2When I met (co-directors and co-producers) Kendrell (Bowman) and Anthony (Wayne, who also stars as Sylvester), it was a cold morning in Philadelphia. They had their package together with an idea. I took the meeting with my son and at the end he said, “You know, Mom, I really think this is something you should do.” I just followed his direction, we did it and that was almost two years ago. We were just nominated for one of the Best Off Broadway Musicals by the Off Broadway Alliance, along with Hamilton. Hamilton ended up winning, but I feel very strongly that this is not the last stop on the road. We’re really headed toward getting ourselves toward Broadway.

BB: How does Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical coalesce with The D.I.V.A. Foundation that you founded, which focuses on generating resources and coordinating activities to create awareness of and combat against HIV/AIDS?

SLR: I believe in testing. My friends died under stigma, shame and silence in the 80s. When it came to HIV/AIDS, nobody wanted to talk about it. Sylvester spoke out. Sylvester found his voice, had his voice, used his voice. Sylvester in this reincarnation of his life {through the musical}, encourages people to go out, get tested, love themselves, embrace themselves, respect themselves enough to put themselves first. Get tested.

BB: How has Sylvester’s story withstood the test of time?

SLR: Sylvester would want everyone to know how FABULOUS he was and remains in our memory. How much his music is still listened to today. He is still very much alive because his music lives. Long before there were a lot of people that we are looking at now, he was doing those braids, he was doing those beads, he was doing that big hair. Because, you know, the bigger the hair, the closer to God. He really had his finger on the pulse of fashion, of culture. He was always pushing the envelope. Sylvester would have been close to 70 years old today.

uptown-sheryl-lee-ralph-dreamgirlsBB: You have had a successful career whether on stage, on TV, or in film. What is the secret to your longevity?

SLR: For me it’s all about redefining myself, recreating myself, living my joy. I love being on stage, center stage. But I also really love having my finger on the pulse that keeps that wheel moving forward. I am especially proud and happy any time I can be a part of seeing a more diverse group of faces on Broadway. It is a shame that there is an industry out there in which we are just not given as many chances as we should to be able to work. Too often, when the chances come up, it is from a production that is all of us {an all-Black production} or all about us, that people don’t understand the power of diversity as much as I think they should.

BB: You found success on Broadway as the original Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, for which you were nominated in 1982 for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Tell us about the grueling demands of being on stage.

SLR: In order to be on stage, it must be a project that you absolutely cannot live without doing. You’re dedicating yourself to 6 or 8 performances a week, and that is a lot. No matter what happens, the amount of energy that you put into a show is significant. It’s something that Brandy is learning right now doing Chicago on Broadway, which I’ve got to go and see before it closes. It’s a huge lesson to commit yourself to getting your body, your vocals in order, your head in order, to do what it takes to do a show 6-8 times a week.

BB: After this one-night only show at Washington DC’s Howard Theatre, what’s next for Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical?

SLR: We may do one more city like “HotLanta.” These are what we consider paid, working workshops of the show. We’re using every opportunity to be on the road, to redo the show, to look at those things that really work. We will hold on to those things and then hone and fill out the other spaces where we think the show can grow. Right now we’ve got an incredible 90-minute piece, but we want a piece that can live like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We want that kind of a show that can win the awards.

SylvesterBB: What should Broadway Black stars take away from Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical?

SLR: We want people to support us. We want people to talk about us. We want all of those folks out there who have ever thought about or dreamed about becoming a Broadway producer; we want them to bring that money to us. That’s how everybody else does it: they find their circle, their friends, their supporters. That’s what we want to do: find our circle, our friends, our supporters. Find where the money is, so that we can do an incredible show and take it to Broadway.

I really want them to support this show. I want them to know that when they hear Mighty Real, that they are going to have a mighty good time. Everyone that saw the Abba musical, they got up, they stood, they cheered, they danced in the middle of the aisles. This is that kind of show. All to the memory of someone who deserves to be remembered. We need their help. We need people to come out and support theater.


Follow @FabSylvester on Twitter to learn if a performance will be coming to your city. In addition, on August 22, DIVA’s Simply Singing will have its 25th Annual kick-off at the Dell Music Center in Philadelphia. On October 24 in Los Angeles will be the 25th Anniversary of the longest running musical AIDS benefit in the country, DIVA’s Simply Singing.

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