I first wrote this review 19 months ago.
On March 12, 2020, the dizzying new pop musical Six – on Henry VIII’s Six Wives, redesigned as a glam pop-ballad-belt girl group – was due to open on Broadway during a transfer from London. Then, a few hours before the curtain, Broadway closed its doors. By the time Six reopened for rehearsal in August 2021, all jewelry-toned plastic and aluminum costumes had deteriorated to such an extent that they had to be rebuilt.
Finally, after more than a year of delay, Six finally had its official opening on Sunday, October 3, in front of a masked and vaccinated audience. “Do you remember us from PBS? Katherine of Aragon asked, and a whole horde of people in the theater – teenage girls in princess dresses and sparkling tiaras, understated bankers, cynical-eyed Millennials in jeans – shouted in response.
The Broadway show and glitz are finally back, and merry, messy Six joined the party. This show can deliver an explosion of energy and exuberance in which Broadway excels at its best, the energy that everyone in this theater has clearly desired over the past 19 months.
Is it enough for the audience to ignore the total mess Six made of his attempts at feminism? Judging by the enthusiastic reception among my fellow spectators at Saturday’s press preview, the answer is probably yes. But I found myself just as embarrassed by Sixmess in 2021 like I was in 2020, and if anything, the weather has made me more vengeful. I am more dazzled by the spectacle today than then, but less inclined to forgive the dismay.
Always, Six has a neat, eye-catching premise and a playful confidence that seems to say, “Don’t worry too much, this is fun!” Whenever the details don’t make sense. The six unhappy wives of King Henry VIII of England (divorced, beheaded, deceased; divorced, beheaded, survivors) organize a pop concert. But the concert also doubles as a contest, with each queen battling it out to see who had the worst time as Henry’s wife. Since there are two distinct “beheaded” in this group and only one “survived”, competition is stiff.
One by one, the queens take the stage in a solo song, with each woman channeling a different modern pop act as she argues that her trauma was the worst trauma ever. And when Six is at its best, the association of each Queen with their given musical style (all imagined by co-authors Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss as seniors at Cambridge; Moss also co-conducts with Jamie Armitage) is fresh, witty and uplifting.
Katherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks, royal), who must have watched her husband cheat on her very publicly, channels Beyoncé in her solo “No Way” as she tells the story of the time Henry tried to send her off. packing in a convent. (There are also subtle Shakira rhythms mixed in, a nod to Katherine’s Spanish childhood.)
Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly, heartbreaking) gives Britney Spears a spooky twist to “If You Seek Amy” in “All You Wanna Do”. The song starts out dark and only darkens, with Howard sexy-baby-cooing through a list of all the men who have used and abused her. “There was four choirsShe spits after finishing. “This is how hard I had to deal with shit.”
The standout number, however, belongs to Anne de Clèves (Brittney Mack, a delight). Cleves, who recently experienced some sort of rebirth in the speech of six women, was historically the luckiest queen. She only had to stay married to Henry for six months, and in the divorce settlement she got heaps of money and land to keep her happy. “Get Down” sees Mack happily dominating “a palace I own”, to a beat borrowed from Nicki Minaj and with a swagger that comes straight from Rihanna.
“It doesn’t seem difficult at all,” objected the other queen.
“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right,” Cleves mused. “I probably won’t win then. Well, back to the palace.
Even when SixSong pairs don’t make a lot of historical sense, they can still be fun, as long as we operate on the “don’t worry too much!” Principle. Marlow and Moss blinded the idea that they won’t portray Anne Boleyn (Andrea Mascasaet, impeccable comedic timing) as the smiling, plotting temptress so much historical fiction shows us. Instead of, Six‘s Boleyn is a deadpan girl from the valley who is very interested in being “X rated” with her royal boyfriend, but casually declares that politics is “not my thing”.
Listen: On the one hand, Anne “Politics is my thing” Boleyn didn’t ride a blue ball for seven years, didn’t invent her own religion, and made her way to the top of the English monarchy to be so despised. On the other hand: the song is a bop. Either way, it’s fun!
But when SixSongs fail, they fail hard. Poor Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller, bright as always) is grappling with a complete wreckage of a ballad adjacent to Adele.
To be fair, Jane starts out with a disability. Historically, she is the most difficult queen to master. She appears to have had a fairly calm and dark personality, and while Henry’s other wives are famous for their dramatic disobedience and / or powerful intelligence, Jane Seymour was submissive, obedient, and indifferent to scholarship. She died shortly after giving birth to Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, and because she gave him a male heir, Henry always claimed that she was the only woman he truly loved. (However, he never bothered to give her a coronation, so all of that consideration for her seems to have only developed after her death.)
Six wives junkies, especially Anne Boleyn fans, tend to overlook Jane Seymour and declare her the most boring and least feminist of all women. So Six seems to have set the laudable goal of shooting an Eliza Hamilton on Jane Seymour, of arguing that Jane Seymour’s status as the most traditionally feminine of Henry’s six wives does not make her worthy of our contempt.
However, in attempting this laudable goal, what Six instead did give Jane a song in which she explains that in fact it’s extremely strong and badass of her to stand by her abusive and abusive husband no matter what he is. threatens to do it to him. There are ways to treat Jane Seymour with respect, but praising her alleged love for her husband who murdered his wife doesn’t seem like a productive way to accomplish that goal.
Jane Seymour’s problem is closely related to the reason Six ends up collapsing. When Six simply says, “Tudor queens, but they’re pop stars!” Don’t think about it too hard! it is a joyous frolic. But when Six says, “Buckle up, kids, I’m about to teach you a thing or two about feminism,” so boy, is that a wreck.
Above all, it’s a wreck at the very end of the show. In his last minutes, Six introduces the lone survivor, Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele, silvery voice), who has a lesson for us.
The way we watched the show, Parr informs the audience, is wrong. It is wrong to pit women and their traumas against each other and have them compete for our pleasure. It is wrong to care about their life only in the context of their marriage to Henry, and not to care about everything else that they have done.
All of this is more or less true. Yet after making this review of himself, Six then keep doing nothing with it.
It is true that it is disgusting to compete to know which of these six women was the most destroyed. In fact, it’s fucked up that we only pay historical attention to women as brilliant as Catherine Parr and Anne Boleyn because of their shitty marriages, and I for one would be very sad to see a musical about Catherine. Parr writing his books or Anne Boleyn’s childhood in France. These stories are not the ones Six is interested in telling.
Six isn’t interested in treating the trauma each of the queens went through as real and meaningful, not when there are fun bops to be had from it. Six isn’t interested in telling his audience anything about the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives beyond the details of their marriages, not when their marriages were so dramatic and exciting.
So at the end of the day, when Catherine Parr says that approaching the story in this way is absolutely wrong, Six manages to be smug, hypocritical and rebuke. He wants to reap the fruits of a feminist deconstruction of history without having set to work to get his feminism or his story correct. You just know that at some point in the development process someone said, “I really think this show can be. Hamilton for women! ”and the finale works as if we all agree that this is actually what Six succeeded, even if it was not.
This moral mess comes at the very end of Six, after having heard all the good songs. And if you are riding high on the dizzying buzz of “Get Down” or if you still have the goosebumps of “All You Wanna Do” then you can probably skip the end too.
At least live theater is finally back, and Six is ready and waiting to fill you with all the joyous energy Broadway can command at its best. In return, all he asks of you is not to think too much about it. Either way, it’s fun!