One reason why Sheryl Lee Ralph decided to get involved with "Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical" was that she had a personal relationship with the disco-era icon.

"How did I meet anybody? We met during 'Dream Girls,' " said Ralph, who was a Tony-nominated original cast member of the musical loosely based on the story of the Supremes. But, she added, it wasn't a one-and-done encounter.

"Meeting him went beyond the stage door," she offered. "It was him inviting you to see him perform, warning you, 'Don't be more fabulous than me, now!' "

The impression that Sylvester made remains with Ralph more than a quarter-century after his death from AIDS.

"You cannot imagine what it was like to see this big, tall black man just being himself," she said. "He could take a rose that wasn't for his lapel, but for behind his ear. You have to imagine what strength it took to walk in his own truth, long before it was politically correct or the thing to do. He was just being Sylvester.

"He didn't care what you'd think: 'I am just Sylvester, take it or leave it.' "