Born at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and hitting not only the London stage but Australia, New Zealand, Chicago, TikTok, Spotify, and Norwegian Cruise Lines even before making it to Broadway, Six (created by Cambridge University students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage) then became one of the worst-timed casualties of the pandemic, as the shutdown happened moments before its opening night curtain. When I first saw the show in March 2020, I thought it felt like a cultural product entirely of its moment: a glittery mashup of Hamilton (a dash of serious history + real musical cred + casting performers of color in historically inaccurate but narratively potent ways), the Spice Girls (a big splash of pick your favorite diva), post-#MeToo female empowerment (a sprinkling of a genuine message), and diva-heavy pop-music influences worn right on its spangled sleeves (and literally matched with characters in the program), from Beyonce to Ariana Grande to Nicki Minaj. It’s a show, more concert than play, that aims squarely at witty, upbeat, self-aware entertainment, and Marlow and Moss hit that mark with polish and without pretensions to Great Art.
Eighteen months of pandemic later, the moment is of course rather different, but the show remains the same: a high-octane pop of cleverness, sparkle, powerhouse performances, and a sense of fun that feels more valuable than it did the first time round. The cast is the same, but the choice to cast an ensemble substantively more diverse than the group of pretty white ingenues that the historical record would dictate feels even more in tune with American theater’s current debates than it did last year.
If the average person–certainly the average American–remembers anything at all about Henry VIII’s wives other than their number, it’s the nursery rhyme that spells out their fate: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Six takes that rhyme, figures each queen as a diva in a girl group for the ages, and creates the Divorced! Beheaded! Live! Tour: six queens, four “ladies in waiting” aka the band, and a tight eighty-minute structure of three full-cast numbers, one solo per queen, and five minutes left at the end for a collective reprise that repeats the hooks of all the numbers and plants the earworms you’ll leave the theater humming.
It ticks all the right boxes: infectious energy; catchy if not exceptionally memorable pop tunes (and a series of increasingly entertaining riffs on “Greensleeves”); witty lyrics with just enough raunch; a solid ensemble of triple threats; and a rocking band. (And I see why cruise ships have already seized on it: with a small company, one set of–fabulous–costumes, and a set with no moving parts, it’s a tour operator’s dream. It’s also, I would imagine, a perfect show to handle the restrictions required by the COVID-19 era.) While I admittedly did not do too much research to confirm this, its history is solid as far as I can tell, nodding to the political complexities involved in each marriage and also focusing squarely on the personalities and circumstances of each queen. Still, the vibe is definitely more Spice Girls than Hamilton, even with the nice “up the particular pathologies of the American patriarchy” touch that the three queens who survived their marriage to Henry are all played by Black women. The delightful costumes, which manage to meld styles of the era with Beyoncé levels of glitz, are in fact by the designer of the last Spice Girls tour, Gabriella Slade. And they’re as clever as the rest of the show, with nifty little touches like neck ribbons for the two beheaded wives, an individual color palette for each queen, and bead patterns that evoke Tudor half-timbering.
Each queen gets to sing her heart out in her own diva idiom, and Moss and Armitage are smart enough to let their performers and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography work their magic without adding much fussiness to the staging. (If the faux competition for “lead singer” that drives the plot seems a little manufactured, just wait and—spoiler alert—you might be proved right.) Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Henry’s first and longest-reigning queen, gorgeous in gold, plays the grande dame who’s pushed too far. Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) is a faux-naif wide-eyed flirt, with a little-girl punk-pop style (“sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said” is her refrain) and constant winks to her actually losing her head. Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), the classic ingenue, gets the soaring true-love ballad that tugs at the heartstrings (though her dying a natural death puts her low in the “who got treated worst by Henry” sweeps). Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack) had my personal favorite number; as the wife with the shortest marriage and the most empowered afterlife, her “queen of the castle” riff is joyous and Mack savors every moment of it. Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly) brings on the pathos in the song that’s stuck in my head, a very modern pop song that also manages to precisely chart the course of a young woman learning to recognize her own sexual exploitation. And Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) brings it all home in another romantic ballad that shows off her beautiful voice and is less about Henry than about the life she gave up to marry him. (Even with the show’s compact running time, the entr’acte about Hans Holbein’s portraits of royals feels like a bit of padding.)
And if (to credit my plus-one), Six is the Bratz doll to Hamilton’s Barbie, that’s not necessarily an unflattering comparison. It’s brasher, cheekier, more conscious of the modern resonances of its stories, and much more rife with double entendre—and that’s what it’s going for. It can’t give you a hero’s journey, because the sum of historical interest in these women begins and ends where their lives intersected with one powerful man (who does not, for the record, appear in the show). Six’s finale tries to reimagine the women’s fates if they’d been allowed to live lives of their own choosing (inspired by the post-Henry life of Catherine Parr, who survived him and went on to be a writer of some renown). Those alternate lives don’t entirely ring true, knowing what we know about women and history, but they stay true to the show’s methods and its message: a soupcon of empowerment and a whole lot of glitzy fun.