What is so funny about a rich and powerful man who disposes of most of his six wives – who wind up “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” as British children learn to memorize in history classes?
The marital track record of Britain’s King Henry VIII is not a pretty one. And it is not usually written about or played for laughs.
But the hit Broadway pop musical SIX marks a highly successful departure from tradition. With sly satire, pop panache and a sextet of powerhouse singer-actors, the 80-minute crowd pleaser is based partly on historical fact – and a lot on the daring feminist cheek and contemporary sensibilities of a gifted British duo, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss.
The two met studying at England’s Cambridge University. And as they concocted a show about Henry and his wives to present at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, they knew from some of the (many, many) historical and fictional accounts, TV documentaries and feature films (there’s also a Shakespeare play about Henry the XIII’s reign), the basics of his epic matrimonial saga.
So, cue the decorous gowns and genteel music of the Tudor court? No way. The duo tapped into their own generation’s pop anthems and snappy irreverent humor. And they chose the framework of a pity party/singing competition to allow each wife their say about life with Henry and rouse the most sympathy (and cheers) from the audience.
But their goal wasn’t just docu-mockery. “What we were interested in doing,” Moss told Smithsonian Magazine in 2021, “was reframing the way that women have been perceived in history and telling their side of the story.”
SIX was a hit in Edinburgh, went on to tour Britain, then to success on London’s West End, on Broadway and around the globe. Now it’s reigning over U.S. stages on tour.
Global domination has been a welcome surprise to the show’s creators, who are still in their 20s. “Even though it had been such a hit in London, when we came out to America, Lucy and I were freaking out, wondering if the history is going to appeal in the same way,” Marlow told The Guardian newspaper. “But [the audience] knew all the words already from the internet, which was extraordinary.”
Need a refresher course on who the “six” spouses were. Here’s a quick rundown:
Henry’s first and longest union (two decades) was with a smart, assertive Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, who despite many pregnancies only produced one viable child with the monarch, christened Mary. Assuming Catherine would never produce a male heir to his throne, Henry divorced her — by defying Catholic Church doctrine and inventing his own religious denomination (The Church of England).
Wife No. 2 was lovely Anne Boleyn, who also gave birth to a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), but alas, no son. To be rid of her, Henry accused Anne of adultery and though historians now doubt her guilt, she was tried and executed.
Next up? Jane Seymour. She produced a male heir, who became King Edward VI – but she died 12 days after his birth. The king still needed a queen, so he turned to Anne of Cleves, a sort of male order German bride. Henry loved Thomas Holbein’s flattering portrait of her, but rejected her in the flesh. Uncrowned, her marriage annulled, Anne still enjoyed a cushy life at court – and unlike poor Anne Boleyn, kept her head on.
On to Katherine Howard, a fun-loving young woman Henry called his “blushing rose without a thorn.” That is, until dalliances with two other men led to her own execution.
Yet another Catherine (Parr) was his final bride and reportedly a faithful nurse to the ailing monarch. (After his death she remarried, only to perish in childbirth herself soon after.)
This condensed version omits a lot of political and personal rivalry among Henry, his wives, and their relations and courtiers. For details, check out Antonia Fraser’s book (and a source for the show), The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy by historical novelist Hilary Mantel.
What you get from SIX is its own unique take on the women’s’ experiences and a big jolt of pizazz: sparkly royal mini-dresses and teeny crowns, catchy tunes and punchy lyrics as the wives (or ex-wives, they remind you) belt out solos, boogie and are each other’s backup singers.
Moss and Marlow told the BBC the numbers are very much influenced by current pop divas with a lot more agency than 16th-Century queens. Anne Boleyn’s upbeat solo tune, “Don’t Lose Ur Head” (“I’m just trying to have some fun/ Don’t worry, don’t worry/ Don’t lose your head”), riffs off British singer Lily Allen’s musical style. “Get Down” is Anne of Cleves whose Queen-spiration is Nicki Minaj and Rihanna: “I’m a Wienerschnitzel, not an English flower/ No one tells me I need a rich man/ Doin’ my thing in my palace in Richmond.”
Amidst the ribald comedy, there are some serious moments, including when Jane Seymour delivers “Heart of Stone,” a poignant Adele-esque ballad addressed to her son: “Soon I’ll have to go/ I’ll never see him grow/ But I hope my son will know/ He’ll never be alone.”
But some have argued that SIX mainly turns women’s tragedies, and their mistreatment by a male-dominated society that viewed women mainly as sex objects and breeders, into comedy. And feminism lite.
That subject may fuel a debate – as you the leave theater after this one-of-a-kind show’s dazzling get-down finale.
Dec 5 – 24 • Buell Theatre