Tonight—hopefully, every single finger crossed (obviously including Anne Boleyn’s alleged sixth fingernail)—will mark one of the sweetest (in a karmic way) Broadway opening nights since shows restarted. On the night of March 12, 2020, Six, which sees the six wives of Henry VIII loudly and emphatically reclaim their own histories, was due to open. But that afternoon, Broadway’s pandemic shutdown was announced, and Six never had its opening night—until Sunday night, when the original Broadway cast returned to finally, officially open the show at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Of course it’s worth the wait. Of course anyone planning their own return to Broadway should buy a ticket. It is one of the cleverest, wittiest, flashiest musicals in town—and sets up home in New York after rave reviews wherever it has played, including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it began life in 2017, and London’s West End. On Sunday night, over 18 months later than anticipated, Six has its long overdue, much deserved moment to shine.
Welcome back to this uniformly excellent cast: Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly), and Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele); and also the phenomenal on-stage band: Julia Schade (conductor/keyboard), Michelle Osbourne (bass), Kimi Hayes (guitars), and Elena Bonomo (drums).
In case you haven’t already heard, the musical Six—by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage—sees the “queens” gathered on stage initially in a kind of musical girl band death match. Their intention is to compete, through song, who suffered the most at the legendarily priapic Henry’s cruel hand: “The queen who was dealt the worst hand… shall be the one to lead the band.”
But the real intention of the show is to reveal how all the women are much more than their grouping in the propulsive group opening number, “Ex-Wives,” and their infamous descriptors: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” It is telling that the structure of the show means each queen gets a solo, and when she does, all the other queens support her as backup singers and dancers.
The costumes (Gabriella Slade) and background lighting (Tim Deiling) marry Tudor styling and pop raunch; think regal armor and breastplates meets “Baby One More Time.” Each queen has a song, and each of those songs is enthusiastically applauded. The influences for each of those solos is listed in the program: Beyoncé, Shakira, Lily Allen, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Sia, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Emeli Sandé. The weaving together of songs, real history, and the experiences of the women is playful, hilarious, and ingenious.
The onstage clash of historical character and mores with modern music and storytelling—and queens whose grip on slack-jawed irony is definitely more Gen Z than 1543—is the most giggle-inducing history lesson you ever had. The orchestrations (Tom Curran) and choreography (Carrie-Anne Ingroulle) are girl-band deceptive—sugared pills with depth.
Anne Boleyn (song: “Don’t Lose Ur Head”) carries with her the peeved, diva-ish impatience of the one who history/everyone remembers, as well as being one of two who was beheaded.
Any time anyone tries to one-up the group on perceived pain, Anne is there to remind them at least they kept their heads. While the initial battle is on, anything is fair game as they argue through and between songs about why, for example, miscarriage trumps dreary old adultery.
The least memorable wives are called out for precisely that by the better-known ones, because what is history and the passage of time if not a ruthless measure of power and effective public relations? The songs—except Mueller’s power ballad “Heart of Stone” for Jane Seymour, a kind of newer, shinier “I Know Him So Well”—are floor stompers and fists-in-the-air dance-floor fillers.
The collectively sung “Haus of Holbein,” a meditation on beauty ideals set to Euro house, is so suited to Lady Gaga, you think either it sprang from her or you hope the queens perform it with her sometime. Then Anna of Cleves gleefully rips up the stage, and disrobes, to “Get Down,” which instead of complaining about her lot with Henry boasts about how much fun she had as a palace wife. Regrets: She didn’t have any.
Historical facts are made into bitchy one-liners, or pithily recited to remind the audience that no, this is not just a fun musical night out but a feminist reclamation made necessary by a patriarchal framing of history that nullified, at least in the popular imagination, the actual lives and minds of the six women.
Threaded between the twangs of electric guitar and bish-bash-bosh of drums, we hear about not just the travails of living with Henry but also the Reformation, Thomas Cromwell, Catholicism, Protestantism, and the women’s beliefs and feelings too. Six is its own Bechdel test of finding a way to situate the six wives in their own lives, desires, ambitions, frailties, losses, triumphs, and strengths.
By the end, the musical cleverly takes the queens down a seemingly impossible and intriguing cul-de-sac. What are they if they are more than Henry’s six wives? Why should they compete for anything? And then there’s the banner problem that they are always defined in relation to him, including by them in front of us right now. They are never allowed their own voice.
Next, the musical, with a large wink, spiritedly dishes its own twist, which has been in plain sight all along in Six’s philosophical underpinnings. By the time a climactic burst of golden confetti rains down, you may feel you’ve had a riotously good time, seen six women frozen in familiar history thrillingly reanimated—and also been reminded that history and its cast of characters, big and small, need not be set in stultifying stone.
Queens, you all have a wonderful night.