A musical about the six wives of King Henry VIII, Six started out as a student project by Cambridge University undergraduates. In 2017, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss brought the musical to the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. From there, it has gone on to play to sold out houses from London’s West End to Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, and is now at the Ordway--its last stop en route to its Broadway premiere.
With its all-female cast supported by an all-female onstage band (“The Ladies in Waiting”), Six is structured as a pop concert, or American Idol-style singing competition, in which each of the wives attempts to prove that she had it worse than all of the others. Each “Queen” brings a musical style inspired by one or several pop divas (Adele, Beyonce, Shakira, Alicia Keyes, etc.), and all wear costumes that are mash ups of Renaissance and contemporary fashions: e.g., Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) appears in a period corset with an Ariana Grande-style miniskirt.
The advance notices say that the play is notable for its wordplay (“Okay, ladies, let’s get in Reformation!”), though it was not always easy to catch, in part, because the sound was not always ideal, but mostly because the lyrics come at one pretty fast and furious. Many in the audience did seem to pick up the laugh lines, and seem prepared to scream and cheer at the right intervals. This may well be due to the fact that the songs from Six has been viral on social media for a while now. At least some in the Ordway’s lively audience last week seemed to have some familiarity with the songs (I saw one man mouth the words to the Anne Boleyn tune) and they kept the energy at a high pitch. As in American Idol, crescendos of whistles and yells expressed enthusiasm whenever a cast member hit and sustained a high note.
The chorus of the opening number (“Ex-Wives”) repeats the mnemonic British children have used for generations to remember the fate of Henry’s six wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” In this opening number, the Queens sing both separately and together: “We're one of a kind/No category/Too many years/Lost in history/We're free to take/ Our crowning glory/For five more minutes/We're SIX!” There are one or two group numbers, but most of the songs were solos, with clever titles (“Don’t Lose Ur Head” and “Haus of Holbein”) to accompany their clever lyrics; most of the pieces featured vocally complex sections which allowed the actors to show off their impressive pipes.
Six is an example of a growing feminist pop genre, in which wronged or falsely accused women from myth or “her-story” reappear, usually in badass mode, to “reclaim their narratives.” The present piece is mostly over-styled fluff -- historical trivia set to music you could dance to--which means you shouldn’t come expecting a serious deconstruction of early modern patriarchy. However, it is very fun and entertaining and, above all, wonderfully performed.
Part of Marlow and Moss’s motivation in writing Six was to provide opportunities for women actor friends who were having trouble finding good roles for women. And Six does indeed provide an excellent showcase for the six outstanding triple threats featured in the production: Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Mallory Maedke (substituting for Abby Mueller on the night I saw the performance), Samantha Pauly, and Anna Uzele, and Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert (substituting for Brittney Mack).
My favorite Queen of the night was number four, Anna of Cleves, a German Princess who Henry chose on the basis of a Hans Holbein portrait. Then as now, portrait painters tended to make their subjects look better than they really did. When the real Anne arrived, Henry married but promptly divorced her, abandoning her, but at least leaving her alive and in decent circumstances (something not all the Queens achieved…). She got to live out her life in her own castle, surrounded by luxury, without having to fulfill the wifely duties for one of history’s infamously brutal bad guys, or um, be killed when his whims changed. (In the lingo of the show, Anne kept her head about her.) Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert performed Anne the night I saw Six and she was terrific, singing in a fashion modeled on Nicki Minaj and Rihanna.
At 80 minutes long, Six felt more like a very strong, campy, highly entertaining fringe show than a full-fledged Broadway-musical. You should not go expecting a layered storyline or deep characterization. However, the music is sparkling and the show is a giddy ride. Go commiserate with the wives and groove!