'Six' on Broadway
King Henry VIII's "Six" Wives Are Alive & Live On Broadway
Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. Tonight, though, the Six Wives of Henry VIII are live and alive.
It can take ages for a musical to rise up to the level of Broadway—sometimes as long as a decade. But for the pop musical "Six," it has been a whirlwind trip that started with its inaugural production put on by Cambridge University students at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in August 2017. 25-year-old co-creators/writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow wrote the show in 10 days. At the Fringe, "Six" sold 10,000 tickets.
That sudden success led to four professional shows at the Arts Theatre in the West End, followed throughout 2018 with alternating touring and a short West End run before landing its current West End residency (again at the Arts) where it has been playing for over a year and landed five Olivier Awards nominations in 2019.
Then things exploded.
There are now six versions of "Six" around the world at the moment—in London, Australia, New York, the U.K. tour, and on two different Norwegian cruise lines. A New Zealand production is in the works. Co-director Jamie Armitage credits "a team of amazing associates" who have shared the workload with the show’s core creative team to get each in motion through a mixture of independent development and checking back in with the musical's originators.
What has made "Six" such a runaway hit? The premise is certainly novel: The Six Wives of Henry VIII are resurrected onstage as a modern girl group. Each woman, portrayed in chic party attire and singing through modern colloquialisms, chronicle the terrible ordeals they each experienced at the hands of their tyrannical husband during the first half of the 16th Century. The one who suffered the most gets to be the lead singer of their ensemble. It's a show about female empowerment and pulling these women forth from the shadows of history.
The show's creators sought to retain the playful spirit of their original student production as it has blossomed and proliferated on professional circuits, but they also wanted to be respectful of the real-life events that inspired them to create their musical comedy. In that sense, "Six" is mining territory similar to the historical hip-hop remix of "Hamilton" and the underappreciated emo satire of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."
"'Six' wins you over—it charms you and is funny and clever and exciting," Armitage tells the Recording Academy. "But then it starts taking it to a more emotional, serious place. I think that is something quite important that it does because otherwise, it could feel a bit frivolous if it was just making jokes about all these bad things that happened. What I love about the show is it does start off in that vein, and then it starts to question that. I think that is very important because this was hundreds and hundreds years ago, and there is an element of delicacy required in talking about these subjects. It's just a testament to their writing and how they've handled that."
Armitage has been with the show from the start, having been captivated by the idea even before they had written it. He already knew Marlow (who wrote original songs for a musical that Armitage previously directed) and Moss, who also choreographed the original student version and has been co-directing the professional versions with Armitage.
Like "Hadestown," "Six" has cultivated a large audience through streaming, so many people who have seen the show already knew the score beforehand. On Spotify, all nine album tracks combined have topped 65 million plays. Armitage notes that having that music already available allows fans to entice friends and family to come along, and teenagers often bring their parents. Many fans have also put their own miming or singing to "Six" tracks up on social platforms like TikTok and YouTube, which is a testament to the show’s popularity.
When one compares the peppy pop of the "Six" cast album against live performances, there is clearly a fuller but slightly less polished sound on stage. "When you come and see it live we push the acting side of it a lot more," stats Armitage. "We push the elements which make it feel a raw live experience rather than just a pop track. And I think that's what makes it very exciting to come and see it in a theater because you get that other side of it."
Each touring version has a different cast, and Armitage says the casts nearly always perform the songs in their natural cultural accents to feel like they are creating their own version of these roles rather than applying a cookie-cutter approach. “If you were to see the Australian version, the New York version, and the London version on three consecutive nights, we have adapted them to the brilliant performers who define each one,” he explains.
It has also been important for the singers to find their own voice for the show rather than imitating a pop star they love. (The influence of women like Rihanna, Ariana, and Beyoncé certainly looms over the show.) "This is their version – if they were Beyoncé, how would they sound rather than ‘I want to sound like Beyoncé’,” elaborates Armitage. “Those kinds of distinctions are really important to making the casts feel like they’ve got their own [voice]. It's tough and does take time in the rehearsal process, but we’re handling it okay so far.”
The irreverent "Six" musical first emerged just before the #MeToo movement gained momentum in late 2017, and Armitage feels that subsequent overlap does help the conversation with the show and engages fans. Under the glitz and glamour of the ladies onstage lie grim stories.
“I think they [fans] like the fact that you can learn something, but it's not preaching,” says Armitage. “It’s just there to take what you want from it. I think that really excites people. I think people always love something that opens up your brain in a different way and makes you think about things differently, but allows you to get there and allows you to figure it out.”
Armitage says "Six" appeals to everyone from Tudor obsessives on both sides of the Atlantic to people with minimal knowledge of that rich period of history. “I think the show is so brilliant in how it's very nerdy, but it doesn't exclude you if you don't know [the era],” explains Armitage. “You can still get a lot out of the show even if you don't know every single tiny bit of history. Because Toby and Lucy are the absolute history buffs that they are, it's very well grounded. There are so many peculiar, lovely little facts in the show, [such as] it is true that Anne Boleyn did wear yellow on the day that she found out Catherine of Aragon passed away."
The "Six" creators hope that level of rigorous historical detail will inspire fans to delve deeper into these women’s lives and read more about them. Further, the show deals with all six wives equally (they frequently harmonize), whereas Armitage and company feel that a lot of public focus has been on the first three Queens. “People know very little about Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr,” asserts Armitage. “They can get excited about that and learn more about these amazing women. It's very, very important to us.”
For the creators and co-director, this has been their first West End and Broadway productions, accomplishments they feel very grateful for. “It's astonishing,” says Armitage. “It never just feels normal. We’re feeling very, very lucky for all of it.” He feels that the main thing people love about "Six" is its playful spirit, the sketch comedy-inspired jokes, and the brilliance and catchiness of the tunes. “What I enjoy is people seem to get lots of different things out of it. They identify with the Queens, they feel particularly excited to see themselves on stage, and therefore have a really strong connection with it.”
Bucking Broadway tradition, "Six" runs for 80 minutes, which is half of the length of a standard musical. It might surprise those theatergoers used to longer shows, but it might also please those who craving a shorter, snappier show.
“There is that classic complaint: Oh, it could have been 10 minutes shorter and you wouldn't have lost anything,” notes Armitage. Conversely, he hopes that people will think that if "Six" were 10 minutes shorter, “you'd lose quite a bit because we’ve managed to pack a lot into five minutes of show time. We wanted the exhilaration you get at a pop concert where it is a very sensory-rich experience, but there's something sneaking around at the end which is the message is the show.”
Read More: Singing—And Streaming—To Success On Broadway
There is a plethora of creative women involved in the show, including choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, costume and scenic designers Gabriella Slade and Emma Bailey, respectively, and musical director Julia Schade leading the all-female band quartet onstage.
“It's very exciting to what work with all these brilliant women because when the message of the show is so much about female empowerment, it is essential that is reflected through our team,” says Armitage. “I think it's a very important conversation that's going on right now, that it is not really acceptable to have male-only teams. Obviously, there's an element of always wanting the best people for the jobs. But I also think if you constantly end up with a team that is composed of the same people then something is going wrong in your selection process. We're really happy to be a part of that movement.”
The core creative team for "Six" have all been working on it since the first professional version in the summer of 2018. The Broadway cast – Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack, Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, and
Anna Uzele – is made up of American performers who first did the Chicago production in May 2019 then toured the U.S. for the latter half of that year. “They've really made these roles their own,” believes Armitage. “For a lot of them, this is their Broadway debut.”
Initially, Armitage admits, there was trepidation about letting American singers perform in their own accents considering that the historical inspiration and the vibe is so British. But he points out that Six is about celebrating the people who perform it. “We didn't want to erase their voices so that they fit an idea of what a British musical should sound like,” he says. “We haven't had any strange comments about it. People are just embracing it and loving that these women are singing in their voices.”
"Six" is part of a growing movement of offbeat, original musicals on Broadway. Armitage says it is heartening to note that some of the biggest musicals over the last five years have not been movie adaptations or classic revivals but fresh productions like "Come From Away," "Hamilton" and "Hadestown." "They are original works, and that is what will keep the theater going," he enthuses. “It's also good to see that audiences love that and get excited by the new thing."
Note: Due to public health and safety concerns, performances of all Broadway productions have been canceled through April 12, 2020. See the production's website for more details.