"Six" musical takes a fresh, feminist look at British history
“Six,” a 2022 Tony nominee for best musical, isn’t just another girl-power show.
Broadway in Columbus and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts will present the national tour, opening Jan. 24 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets are currently sold out.
“‘Six’ is built to celebrate iconic characters. They’re queens and they’re stars, with modern sounds, visuals and style,” said Lucy Moss, who co-created the musical with Toby Marlow.
They designed “Six” to work on two levels.
“It’s a pop-concert musical about a girl group performing a public extravaganza, and the six singers happen to also be the six wives of Henry VIII,” Moss said from London.
The 80-minute one-act draws parallels between the 16th-century queens and 21st-century pop divas.
“They are the equivalent of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, but the biggest stars of their time, 500 years ago,” Moss said.
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How does “Six” channel 'girl-power' themes?
Today, more musicals are championing “girl-power” themes – most notably, “Wicked,” “Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia!,” “The Color Purple,” “Legally Blonde” and “Beautiful.”
“Six” – reinforced by the casting, with all 10 touring performers women or non-binary (including the four-member onstage band) - fits that focus while rooted in history.
“When we wrote ‘Six,’ our conversations were about feminist history and patriarchy. It’s really important to see shows that center different voices,” Moss said.
While in their final year at Cambridge University, Marlow and Moss put together the show’s basic concept, pop score, script and style within 10 non-consecutive days over six months. The college project was staged in a college basement with friends performing the roles.
“We thought we’d do it next as a summer project at the Edinburgh fringe festival, that would be it ... and then we’d graduate. Its success is pretty wild,” Moss said.
“Six” has drawn crowds since 2019 in London and since 2021 in New York, where it won the Outer Critics Circle award for best Broadway musical and received eight Tony nominations (winning for best score and costumes).
In his review, New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones praised “Six” for its humor and “spirited radicalism” that “gets to a complex historical paradox and treats it with verve, the memories of women in history being tied to the life of a man.”
Is 'Six' faithful to history?
Taking inspiration from “Hamilton,” “Six” offers a brash, modern reinterpretation of the sextet of spurned wives, most of whom were divorced or beheaded.
“The whole show is like a live experiment ... reframing England’s history with a feminist twist to tell a very different story about what happened and who behaved badly,” said Moss, 28, who became the youngest female director of a Broadway musical when she co-directed “Six.”
“Empowerment is a really important theme. ... ‘Six’ questions the status quo; it’s about taking up space, representing yourself and using your voice for good,” she said.
While avoiding the simplistic binary of viewing the historical queens as either heroes or victims, “Six” adds comic and satiric dimensions to its retelling of history.
“It’s got something serious to say, but it’s also joyful and playful ... done tongue-in-cheek, so we can mess around with history this way,” Moss said. “I’m not interested in figuring out what actually happened ... but using the queens’ story to uplift women today."
Who was Catherine of Aragon?
Khaila Wilcoxon plays Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.
“I’d call her the leader of the pack ... strong, fierce, dominant,” Wilcoxon said.
Catherine served as England’s regent while Henry was in France, and played a role in the defeat of Scottish invaders with an empassioned speech about English courage.
“Catherine just wants respect as a warrior, a badass who can go from zero to 100 in five seconds,” Wilcoxon said.
Wilcoxon gives the queen a comic edge.
“The real Catherine was a stoic, straight-faced woman in brass armor who smiled through her pain. Most historians would be taken aback by how funny I play her. But that’s why humor has to come through ... people need to laugh through trauma,” she said.
Wilcoxon opens the show.
“She gets the audience prepared and revved up for the rest of the girls,” she said. “People will learn more about Henry and his six wives, but Americans may not know more about the queens’ fate beyond ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, died.'"
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What made Boleyn different?
Storm Lever plays Anne Boleyn.
“The other queens introduce her with gossip as the temptress, the mystery, the one who changed history, but when you see her, Anne is just an average girl,” Lever said.
Henry beheaded Boleyn, his second wife.
“Anne likes taking the spotlight. Bold and unapologetic, Anne reclaims her narrative and won’t apologize, saying, 'Here’s what actually happened,'” Lever said.
Researching biographies and documentaries, Lever realized how much views about Boleyn have evolved.
“Earlier biographies depicted her as immoral, destructive or manipulative. More recent depictions, which take into consideration how women’s position in society made them victims of circumstance, describe Anne as witty, sophisticated and intelligent,” Lever said.
Like the other actresses, she strives to bring a contemporary feel to her performance.
“People have an instant connection to ‘Six’,” she said, “because the queens talk the way we talk in 2023.”
The king’s six wives and their fates
King Henry VIII ruled England for 36 years (1509-1547) and had six wives, listed here in chronological order:
Catherine of Aragon (married 1509, annulled in 1533)
Anne Boleyn (married 1533, beheaded in 1536 for adultery and treason)
Jane Seymour (married 1536, died in 1537 from complications of giving birth)
Anne of Cleves (married 1540, annulled six months later)
Katherine Howard (married 1540, executed in 1542 for adultery and treason)
Catherine Parr (married 1543, died in 1548, a year after Henry’s death)
At a glance
Broadway in Columbus and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts will present “Six” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Tickets are currently sold out. (cbusarts.com)
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Six Broadway musical coming to Ohio Theatre in Columbus