I first wrote this review 19 months ago.
On March 12, 2020, the giddy new pop musical Six — about the six wives of Henry VIII, reimagined as a glam pop-ballad-belting girl group — was set to open on Broadway in a transfer from London. Then, just hours before curtain, Broadway shut its doors. By the time Six reopened for rehearsal in August 2021, all the jewel-toned plastic-and-foil costumes had deteriorated so much that they had to be rebuilt.
Finally, after more than a year of delay, Six at last had its official opening on Sunday, October 3, before a masked, vaccinated audience. “Remember us from PBS?” demanded Katherine of Aragon, and a whole horde of people in the theater — teenage girls in glittery princess dresses and tiaras, sober-suited bankers, cynical-eyed millennials in jeans — screamed back in response.
The spectacle and the glitz of Broadway is back at last, and joyous, messy Six has joined the party. This show can deliver a blast of the energy and exuberance that Broadway at its best excels at, the energy that everyone in that theater has palpably longed for over the past 19 months.
Is that enough to make audiences overlook the utter mess Six makes of its attempts at feminism? Judging by the rapturous reception among my fellow theatergoers at Saturday’s press preview, the answer is likely yes. But I found myself just as bothered by Six’s messiness in 2021 as I was in 2020, and if anything time has made me more vengeful. I’m more dazzled by the spectacle now than I was then, but less inclined to forgive the disarray.
Still, Six has a neat, eye-catching premise and a breezy confidence that seems to say, “Don’t worry about it too much, it’s fun!” every time the details stop making sense. The six ill-fated wives of King Henry VIII of England (divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived) are hosting a pop concert. But the concert also doubles as a contest, with each queen facing off to see who had the worst time as Henry’s wife. Given that there are two separate “beheadeds” in that group and only one “survived,” the competition is stiff.
One by one, the queens take the stage in a solo song, each wife channeling a different modern pop act as she makes the case that her trauma was the worst trauma. And when Six is at its best, the pairing of each queen to her given musical style (all dreamed up by co-writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss as seniors at Cambridge; Moss also co-directs with Jamie Armitage) feels fresh and witty and exhilarating.
Katherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks, regal), who had to watch her husband very publicly cheat on her, channels Beyoncé in her solo “No Way” as she recounts the tale of the time Henry tried to send her packing off to a nunnery. (There are some subtle Shakira beats mixed in, too, in a nod to Katherine’s Spanish childhood.)
Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly, heartbreaking) puts a chilling spin on Britney Spears circa “If You Seek Amy” in “All You Wanna Do.” The song starts dark and only gets darker, with Howard sexy-baby-cooing her way through a list of all the men who have used her and abused her. “There were four choruses,” she spits after she’s finished. “That’s how much shit I’ve had to deal with.”
The standout number, though, belongs to Anne of Cleves (Brittney Mack, a delight). Cleves, who has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance in six wives discourse, was historically the luckiest of the queens. She only had to stay married to Henry for six months, and in the divorce settlement, she got piles of money and land to keep her happy. “Get Down” sees Mack gleefully lording it up over “a palace that I happen to own,” to a beat borrowed from Nicki Minaj and with swagger that comes straight from Rihanna.
“That doesn’t sound difficult at all,” the other queens object.
“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right,” Cleves muses. “I probably won’t win then. Oh well, back to the palace.”
Even when Six’s song pairings don’t make much historical sense, they can still be fun, as long as we operate on the principle of “don’t worry about it too much!” Marlow and Moss lampshade the idea that they won’t be portraying Anne Boleyn (Andrea Mascasaet, impeccable comic timing) as the smirking, plotting temptress that so much historical fiction shows us. Instead, Six’s Boleyn is a deadpan valley girl who is very interested in getting “X-rated” with her royal boyfriend, but who breezily declares politics to be “not my thing.”
Listen: On the one hand, Anne “Politics Are My Thing” Boleyn did not blue ball a king for seven years, invent her own religion, and claw her way to the top of the English monarchy to be disrespected like that. On the other hand: The song’s a bop. Whatever, it’s fun!
But when Six’s songs fail, they fail hard. Poor Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller, luminous as always) is saddled with a complete wreck of an Adele-adjacent ballad.
To be fair, Jane is starting with a handicap. Historically, she is the hardest queen to get a handle on. She seems to have had a fairly quiet, shadowy personality, and while Henry’s other wives are famous for their dramatic disobedience and/or powerhouse intellects, Jane Seymour was compliant, obedient, and uninterested in scholarship. She died shortly after giving birth to Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, and because she provided him with a male heir, Henry always claimed that she was the only wife of his that he truly loved. (He never bothered to give her a coronation, though, so all that consideration for her appears to have developed only after she died.)
“Six wives” junkies, especially Anne Boleyn fans, tend to discount Jane Seymour and declare her the most boring and the least feminist of all the wives. So Six seems to have set itself the laudable goal of pulling an Eliza Hamilton on Jane Seymour, of making the case that Jane Seymour’s status as the most traditionally feminine of Henry’s six wives does not make her deserving of our contempt.
However, in attempting that worthy aim, what Six has done instead is give Jane a song in which she explains that actually, it is extremely strong and badass of her to stand by her abusive and violent husband no matter what he threatens to do to her. There are ways to treat Jane Seymour with respect, but lauding her alleged love for her wife-murdering husband does not seem to me to be a productive way to achieve that goal.
The problem of Jane Seymour is closely linked to the reason Six ultimately falls apart. When Six is just saying, “Tudor queens, but they’re pop stars! Don’t think about it too hard!” it’s a joyous romp. But when Six is saying, “Buckle up, kiddos, I’m about to learn you a thing or two about feminism,” then boy, is it a wreck.
Mostly, it’s a wreck at the very end of the show. In its final minutes, Six showcases the lone survivor, Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele, silvery-voiced), who has a lesson for us.
The way we have been watching the show, Parr informs the audience, is wrong. It is wrong to pit women and their trauma against each other and make them compete for our enjoyment. It is wrong to care about their lives only in the context of their marriages to Henry, and not to care about everything else they did.
All of which is more or less true. Yet after making this critique of itself, Six then proceeds to do nothing with it.
It’s true that it’s gross to compete over which of these six women’s lives was destroyed the worst. It is, in fact, messed 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 down to see a musical about Catherine Parr writing her books or Anne Boleyn’s childhood in France. Those stories are not the ones Six is interested in telling.
Six is not interested in treating the trauma the queens each suffered as real and meaningful, not when there are fun bops to be made out of it. Six is not interested in telling its audience anything about the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII beyond the details of their marriages, not when their marriages were so dramatic and exciting.
So at the end, when Catherine Parr says that approaching the story in this way is all wrong, Six manages to come off only as smug, hypocritical, and scolding. It wants to reap the rewards of making a feminist deconstruction of history without having put in the work to get either its feminism or its history 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 operates as though we have all agreed that this is in fact what Six has pulled off, even though it hasn’t.
That mess of a moral comes at the very end of Six, after we’ve already gotten to hear all of the good songs. And if you’re riding high on the giddy buzz of “Get Down” or you still have goosebumps from “All You Wanna Do,” then you can probably make it through the ending, too.
At least live theater is finally back, and Six is ready and waiting to shower you with all the joyous energy Broadway can command at its best. In exchange, all it asks of you is that you don’t think about it too much. Whatever, it’s fun!
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