CAMBRIDGE, MASS — Six, the pop-concert musical featuring the wives of Henry VIII cracking wise and woeful about their tragic destinies, is an inventive and exuberant take on 16th-century history for the Snapchat generation and beyond.
I saw it over the weekend with a boisterous audience at the American Repertory Theatre. I heard many investors failed to get in on this crowd-pleaser, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in March after stops at the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta, and the Ordway in St. Paul. With just six actresses backed by a four-piece, all-female band, the capitalization and running costs are presumably low for the 80-minute show. That sets the stage for serious moneymaking if the standing-room-only tryouts — the North American premiere was in Chicago — prove to be a harbinger of its New York prospects.
Lucy Moss, 25 and Toby Marlow. 24, started writing their clever R&B, funk and pop score while studying at Cambridge University. (Moss also directed the show, with Jamie Armitage.) Marlow has acknowledged that Hamilton‘s contemporary spin on the American Revolution was an inspiration. But Six is not exactly imitative, with a POV that’s female, cheeky and defiant.
The wives, dazzling in Gabriella Slade’s royal punk costumes, face off over whose lot was the worst. The competition is theoretically stiff. Henry had Ann Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) and Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack) executed. Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller) died shortly after childbirth.
Anne of Cleves (Brittney Mack, no relation to Courtney) laments Henry’s disappointment upon meeting after he took to her Hans Holbein portrait. “You said that I tricked ya/’Cause I didn’t look like my profile picture,” she sings in a Rihanna-esque number. She’s eventually rewarded with a hefty allowance and property because she didn’t fight her annulment.
“I wanna go hunting, any takers?/ I’m not fake ’cause I’ve got acres and acres/Paid for with my own riches/Where my hounds at? Release the bitches.”
Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) sings an Alicia Keys-inspired ballad to the man she loved, an offstage Thomas Seymour, about being forced to marry the monarch. “If Henry says it’s you,’ then it’s you/No matter how I feel/It’s what I have to do.”
Parr goes on to write books and fight for female education. “So all my women could independently study scripture/I even got a woman to paint my picture.”
While some of the songs have a dramatic arc, the show as a whole — not so much. Tudor-era decapitation may be fair game for jokes today, but Moss and Marlow haven’t succeeded in mining much humor there. The numerous social media references aren’t all LOL.
Still, the wordplay is generally a hoot, as is the cast. (In the absence of a new cast recording, I recommend the U.K. one, streaming on YouTube and other services.) Two years after it debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this Renaissance “herstory” feels very much of the moment.
A team of commercial producers, led by Kenny Wax, is striking while the crown is hot. There are plans for Six in Australia, a U.K. tour, a return to Chicago and even a presence on Norwegian Cruise Line, in addition to Broadway and the year-old West End engagement.
The six wives suffered at the hands of men, but their stories endured. There’s an excitement as they sing and dance together, suggesting the power of collective action — when illuminating history, or trying to shape it.
Note: This post was updated to add additional presentations of the musical.