- Jonathan Kalb
Wait. How Many?
My first thought at the curtain call of Six: The Musical—the glittery, spangly, ear-splitting, surprisingly smart musical makeover of Henry VIII’s wives as girl-power pop stars that just arrived on Broadway after an 18-month delay—was that Lin-Manuel Miranda had worked too hard.
Miranda took Broadway by storm by tapping a popular historical biography, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, as the prime source for a remarkably innovative historical musical that took six years to develop. Miranda checked and double-checked facts and read deeply in primary sources well beyond Chernow, forging a new theatrical form and staking new, diverse claims to hallowed national myths. He reportedly took a year just to fine-tune the number “My Shot.”
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, by contrast, created Six a few years ago as a larky school project when they were Cambridge University undergrads. It went to the Edinburgh Fringe, then exploded as a West End sensation and a popular tour and cruise show.
Marlow and Moss didn’t sweat the library stuff much. She read Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII—a respected history meant to individualize the titular queens beyond their reductive generic labels “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Moss’s pithy reaction: “Ooh, I think this could be cool, as a feminist thing.”
Secondary sources here appear to be mostly Spotify, fanzines and music videos. The 80-minute show—which leaves Henry out, natch—has an all-women 4-piece band and needs nothing more than the rudimentary basics of each queen’s bio because its six characters are really pop stars engaged in a braggadocio song smackdown over whose life was most abysmal. Each is given a specific “queenspiration” (e.g. Beyoncé and Shakira for Catherine of Aragon, Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne for Anne Boleyn, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna for Anna of Cleves), which allows us to tell them apart as they brag over who “was dealt the worst hand.”
This extraordinarily silly contrivance has no business working as well as it does. It glamorizes abjection, trivializes suffering, and rests on the decidedly weird premise that winning a prize for the greatest harm somehow advances the emancipatory cause of women.
Yet none of that seems to matter much—for reasons I’ll speculate on. First, I think that because the show is short and its performers are all very strong vocalists, their solos grab focus and hold it. Second, once the solos are done, the conceit of the smackdown contest is dropped in favor of a spontaneous epiphany among the six, which many will see coming. Yes, they suddenly discover that their solidarity in reclaiming their individual stories from patriarchal history means more than winning! More on that in a sec.
Third, we’re clearly not expected to follow the biographical details anyway, as the queens are mainly ciphers for the female-empowerment attitudes of their star alter egos: Aragon is regal and bossy, Boleyn sassy and sardonic, Cleves smugly self-satisfied, and so on.
I, for one, couldn’t care less about these pop profiles. Yet despite that, I was mildly awed by the scores of young people around me at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre devotedly mouthing the lyrics as the actors sang, which continued throughout. I’d read that the cast album had been downloaded 100 million times since its release 3 years ago. Still, seeing that adoration in action, no doubt amplified by the release of bottled-up pandemic cabin fever, was a thrill in itself.
I do recognize that not every new musical needs to be a Hamilton. Light entertainment has a place. Yet fluffy and lighthearted as Six obviously is, it does leave you wondering whether it has a valuable if vague feminist point—possibly tucked into its suggestion that, at least among celebrities, female solidarity can flourish now (unlike in the 16th century) and improve the world. Think of the hopes invested in Time’s Up!
When I got home, as another check on this, I typed “do female pop stars support one another?” into the Google search box. The top result was a YouTube video of Ariana Grande gushing about Nicki Minaj: “I love that bitch so much! It’s crazy!!”
Photo: Joan Marcus
By Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
The Brooks Atkinson Theatre