The Tudor Girl Group Musical Six Is Poised for World Domination
A new musical about Henry VIII's six wives has scheduled productions across the globe.
The next big musical theater sensation might just be Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss's Six, a scrappy little show that has catapulted from the fringe right into the heart of the world's major theater centers — including Broadway. Story of the Week will chart the show's unlikely trajectory, attempt to explain its popularity, and speculate about its chances in New York: Will it be love-at-first-sight for Broadway audiences, or will Six get the chop?
What is Six?
Six imagines a pop concert starring the six wives of King Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss put them in a competition to see which of the wives had it worst from old Henry, introducing them with a rhyme that will be instantly familiar to any student of English history: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Each of the women gets a song to plead her case. But are their fates in relation to a male monarch really the most interesting things about them? Six delivers Renaissance history with a side of girl power in a pop music package — and that has proved to be a very satisfying treat for British audiences.
Marlow and Moss wrote the show while they were studying for their finals at Cambridge University. It became a hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it made its world premiere under the banner of the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society. Since then, it has gone on to an extended run on London's West End and a UK tour. It made its North American debut at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in May 2019, where it delighted Chicago critics and led to speculation of a Broadway transfer.
Sure enough, a Broadway run was announced last week: Six will move into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre this coming February, after Waitress closes. This week, we learned that Six will triumphantly return to Chicago next summer (this time at the Broadway Playhouse). Additionally, a production will open at the Sydney Opera House (yes, that one) in January.
North American audiences who want to see the show sooner than 2020 will have an opportunity in two weeks when a production opens at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts (August 21-September 27). Following that, Six will play engagements at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta (November 2-24), and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota (November 29-December 22). In short, Six is taking the theater by storm.
Why is Six so popular?
Audiences have been charmed by Marlow and Moss's ability to make the story of Henry and his wives fun and accessible through radio-ready tunes. Echoing the Be More Chill phenomenon, the cast recording of Six has been streamed millions of times online, winning new converts to the energetic pop score.
Critics have received the show with similar warmth, with many comparing it favorably to Hamilton for its ability to synthesize serious history and popular musical forms. In his review, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune nodded in appreciation to the musical's finale, in which Anne of Cleves asks audience members to pull out their cell phones and record. "If this show can find its way on to the Snapchats and Instagrams of high school girls and 20-something women around Chicagoland this summer," he speculated, "Chicago Shakespeare and Navy Pier really will have a thing here." That run was subsequently extended by a month, something that ought to give anti-bootlegging absolutists pause.
More importantly, the show seems to offer the always-in-fashion experience of an irreverent good time at the theater. As Daisy Bowie-Sell of WhatsOnStage writes in her review of the West End production, "It's the big, two fingers up fun of it all that's bound to delight almost anyone who comes to see it."
I haven't yet seen Six, but I was underwhelmed by its performance at the Olivier Awards, which felt like a British Eurovision act in an off year.
Will it be a hit on Broadway?
I'm skeptical. Such gimmicky musicals have a poor track record on Broadway: Most recently, Seth Rudestsky's Disaster! (a spoof of '70s disaster films with a jukebox score) flopped at the Nederlander Theatre in 2016. Dames at Sea (a small-cast send-up of lavish Busby Berkeley movies) similarly capsized in the much smaller Helen Hayes Theatre in 2015. Lysistrata Jones, which reframes the Aristophanes comedy around college basketball, bounced into the Walter Kerr Theatre in December 2011 (and quickly bounced out again in January 2012). These kind of clever-college-kids-with-a-concept musicals are festival darlings and can often develop a cult following off-Broadway — but they tend to wilt under the harsh lights of Broadway.
The concept of Six is most reminiscent of Altar Boyz, Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker, and Kevin Del Aguila's musical about a Christian boy band. Debuting as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004 (years after both NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys had gone on hiatus), it felt a bit stale in its satire back then (although it went on to play over 2,000 performances off-Broadway). If the producers of Six are similarly looking to capitalize on the success of the Spice Girls, they're about 20 years too late.
Even the 75-minute running time of Six is worrying: At current Broadway prices, audiences will have to commit to paying over $1 a minute for Six. Will it be worth it?
There is, of course, a strong contingent of anglophiles in the Broadway audience. They tend to go for fare that feels like a live version of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre (the two-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall immediately comes to mind). If Six can satisfy that sweet spot right in the middle of their brows (and some of the lyrics suggest it just might), it could end up a big hit.