‘Six: The Musical’ reclaims history via feminist pop

Courtesy of Idil Sukan via Playbill

Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

So goes the mnemonic of the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives. This children’s rhyme has served its purpose in packaging history into memory, but it has also minimized the legacies of six important women to single words. These six words each hold a story of betrayal, of injustice, of tragedy. By reducing these women to single words, their complex, unique experiences are erased. This reductive rhyme serves as the springboard for the opening lines of  “Six the Musical.” 

“Six” tells the stories of the women—all six of them—who were married to Henry VIII. It is a modern presentation of the complexities and perspectives often left out when discussing the monarch’s 38-year reign. With music and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the show was originally presented by Cambridge University at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before being professionally produced in the West End of London. The show’s songs travel the spectrum of modern-day pop; each wife’s style can be connected with a famous, modern pop-diva. The show’s structure is less like traditional musical theater and more like a concert. There is not a momentous plot nor elaborate set design, but rather a tracklist with extravagant costumes and songs that could easily be found in today’s Top 40. 

The story is not only modernized by its 2019 pop soundtrack, but also through its interrogation of 16th century gender roles. The ladies of the show are witty, sarcastic and up-front about their sexualities. The idea for this form of character presentation comes from its continued absence in the industry. “Musical theatre often has lame parts for women. We wanted to write loads of meaty, funny parts for women,” said co-creator Lucy Moss (“Six musical leaps from Edinburgh Fringe to Broadway,” BBC, 01.08.2019). From Catherine of Aragon’s defiance to Catherine Howard’s blatant sexual confidence, each of these women represent ideals that have been conventionally deemed vile in women. 

The show opens with a powerful number titled “Ex-Wives,” which establishes each of the six women’s voices and their respective complexities. The queens do not appear to get along with one another, as the the show begins as a competition to see which wife had the “hardest time” with Henry VIII. The musical then zooms in and presents the six as individuals: in solo format, each woman gets to make her case and share her story.  

Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s wives, begins this sequence. Her solo, “No Way,” is a Latin-funk pop song with clear inspiration from the queen herself, Beyoncé. “No Way” is energized by impressive vocals, intense drum lines and passionate lyrics. The Latin-funk brass passages tie in Catherine of Aragon’s Spanish roots, while also emphasizing a liveliness which directly reflects her persistence and ferocity. The lyrics allow Catherine’s story to shine through these layered musical elements. She sings about refusing to be pushed aside and forgotten: “I won’t back down, won’t shh/And no I’ll never leave,” she exclaims. Beginning the solos with this message establishes the purpose of the entire show: to give voice to the silenced. 

Following Queen Catherine is Anne Boelyn. “Six” gives Anne a sassy track, complete with background claps reminiscent of Meghan Trainor. Juxtaposed with Anne Boelyn’s violent fate of her eventual beheading, “Don’t Lose Ur Head” is an upbeat track full of tongue-in-cheek quips. The song focuses on the witty side of Anne Boelyn while also highlighting her unapologetic, determined nature. It’s unexpected—with such a tragic storyline, the listener expects an emotional ballad, but instead receives a fun, flirty bop. 

The anticipated ballad arrives in Jane Seymour’s solo, “Heart of Stone.” As opposed to Anne Boelyn, Jane Seymour had a relatively pleasant marriage with Henry VIII and is often called “the only one [Henry VIII] ever loved” by the other queens throughout the show; because of this, the melancholy solo from Jane surprises the audience. True to the historical Jane Seymour, the lyrics in “Heart of Stone” are not sassy or witty, but rather heartfelt and sincere. “Six” fills her solo with impressive belting and high notes which suggest that, although she was not as fierce as some of Henry’s other wives, Seymour still had a profound, driving strength. At the end of the song, all of the women join in on the chorus. With all six voices united, it becomes clear that “Heart of Stone” is not just Jane Seymour’s story, but a message that resonates with each wife. It also marks the first sign of solidarity between the six in the show.  

In a complete change of pace both sonically and lyrically, “Get Down,” Anne of Cleves’s solo, paints a picture of unconventionality that stands out amongst the other wives. With a more prominent hip-hop style, “Get Down” brings vintage Rihanna and Nicki Minaj to mind. Lyrically, Anne of Cleves sings of hunting, religion and education—not so much of Henry or her marriage to him. History paints Anne as a queen that Henry divorced due to her ugliness. This solo, however, does not define her by her looks, but instead by her individuality and non-conforming femininity. 

After divorcing Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII fell for her complete opposite: Catherine Howard. Henry VIII’s love for Catherine did not come from politics or duty, but rather desire. Catherine Howard’s solo, “All You Wanna Do,” indicates this. With influences from Britney Spears and Ariana Grande, two female artists known for risqué moves and sexual liberation, Howard’s solo is sultry and upbeat with remarkable vocals that complete the image of a woman that is confident and empowered by her sexuality.

Catherine Parr’s solo, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” wraps up the wives’ solos in an Alicia Keys-style song of survival and power. The song sounds to the ear like a love song, but the lyrics reveal the exact opposite: It’s about not wanting love, but having no choice. As Catherine repeats the phrase “no choice” throughout the song, it suggests another, much darker message that is deeply embedded in the history of women. At the end of the song, the wives once again unite their voices and join in on a story of female resilience that they each know and relate to. The song completes the arc of the show. 

At the beginning of the show, each wife competed for the title of worst experience with Henry VIII, but as the show closes, the women realize that who they are has nothing to do with the man they married and everything to do with their self-selected destinies.

“Six the Musical” is scheduled to land on Broadway in the U.S. in March 2020. 

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