Theater Review: The Wives of Henry VIII Reclaim History in “Six” at the A.R.T.
By Christopher Caggiano
The new pop musical tells the oft-told tale of uxoricide from the women’s perspective.
Six by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater staging presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through September 29.
A musical about the six wives of King Henry VIII? As unlikely as that might sound, there have actually been multiple attempts at such a piece. In 1976, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Sheldon Harnick helped create Rex, which told the story from the Henry’s perspective. The show ran a little over a month, and hasn’t really been heard from since.
The very idea of a musical about Henry’s succession of wives prompted Clive Barnes of the New York Times to write that such a story “…may make an old-time virtuoso show-off film piece for a Charles Laughton…but it is not much as the basis for a musical.” Well, as I like to tell my students, there are no bad ideas, only poor execution.
It’s unlikely that creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss wrote the musical Six as a direct challenge to Mr. Barnes’ dismissal. More likely the two Cambridge University undergraduates thought that the time was ripe to reconsider the unfortunately abbreviated lives of these women and tell their stories from a more enlightened modern-day perspective.
The musical Six is already far more successful than Rex by a long shot. The show was first produced in 2017 while Marlow and Moss were still at university, after which it became a sensation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Six is currently a smash hit in London, and is set to open on Broadway in February of 2020. There are plans for a UK tour, an Australian production, as well as a return engagement to Chicago after a sold-out run there.
Prior to its Broadway opening, Six is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater, where it’s showing every sign of continuing its successful track record.
Does the show live up to the hype? In many ways, yes. The premise is compelling: reclaiming a story normally dominated by the deeply flawed man at its center and celebrating each woman as an individual. Six starts as an “American Idol” style sing-off among the six wives, where the winner is whoever got the shortest end of the stocks from Henry.
But, by the end, the women reach a collective realization. If you think about it, they say, Henry VIII is famous because of the women in his life, and not the other way around. So there’s a message of empowerment there, however sardonically revisionist.
Six’s main assets are its spectacular staging, the rousing pop songs, and some genuinely kick-ass performers. As befits a show written by Oxbridge scholars, there are some really clever lines, rhymes, and observations here. Much of the humor comes from discussing events that occurred half a millennium ago, but with modern idioms and references, particularly to Facebook, Tinder, and sexting.
Since the show is written as a modern TV singing contest, there’s lots of requisite riffing and screlting, which at times seems dramatically justified, but at other times crosses the line into showboating. The songs have a pleasant pop feel to them, although they don’t really bear up upon repeated listening. (The songs are already readily available online.)
The songs feature some genuinely clever wordplay — when you can understand what the performers are singing, that is. It all goes by a bit fast, and the sound design doesn’t seem to place much emphasis on diction. The lyrics for the most part avoid the pop pitfalls of slant rhyme and faulty scansion, except in “All You Wanna Do,” a solo for Katherine Howard, (wife number 5), which features at least three prosodic transgressions (e.g. placing the emphasis on the last syllable of “connection” and “devoted”).
Each wife gets her own solo, which is both an asset and a liability. Even though the show clocks in at a speedy 75 minutes, by the time wives five and six have their say, the concept has become attenuated and tiresome. The authors wisely break up the six solos with a group number halfway through about a very unlikely subject — the 16th century Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein.
Some of the songs don’t quite do justice to their subjects. For instance, “Get Down” for Anna of Cleves, in which she laments that Henry is disappointed because she doesn’t look like the Holbein portrait that inspired his marriage proposal. But that lament doesn’t touch on what made her life with Henry so miserable, which, after all, is the central conceit of the show.
The humor in Six occasionally becomes a bit crude. For instance, pun-based references to oral sex and being someone’s “little piece of ass-istant.” The puns about not losing one’s head get old pretty quickly. And there’s some rather awkward expository speechifying inserted at the end to justify the denouement.
Again, the performers are a major part of the show’s appeal. In keeping with the show’s aim to be revisionist, the cast of six includes three black performers, one Asian, and two white. Brittney Mack is a real spark plug as Anna of Cleves. Andrea Macasaet is sharp and irrepressible as Anne Boleyn, and a continual source of laughs throughout the show.
Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour knocks her solo out of the park. In “Heart of Stone,” Seymour fervently laments how she was supposedly the only one of Henry’s wives whom he genuinely loved, only to die a year into her reign from postnatal complications. You can certainly tell that Abby is the sister of Broadway favorite and Tony winner Jessie Mueller, although Abby has a distinctive style of her own, and seems especially suited for the pop idiom.
Tickets for Six seem to be selling extremely well for its Cambridge run, although there are still good seats left at the time of this writing. If you’re not able to see the show at the A.R.T., I really wouldn’t worry. Something tells me this show is going to be around for quite a while, both on Broadway and on tour.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.