NEW YORK, NY.-
Are you an Elsa or an Anna? An Elphaba or a Glinda? Or, for those with more classic tastes, a Vera or a Mame?
Musicals typically offer just two prototypes of dynamic womanhood: a twinsie set of dark and light. To hit a real Broadway sister lode you have to time travel further back than Frozen, Wicked or even Mame: half a millennium back, as it happens. In Six, the queenhood-is-powerful pageant about the wives of Henry VIII that took a bow finally! at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Sunday evening, Tudor London is the place to be if youre looking for a sextet of truly empowered, empowering megastars.
Of course, you do have to get past the little hitch of divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. But so what if the shows view of the wives is counterfactual? Their power may have been limited during their lives by men, misogyny and the executioner, and diminished afterward by the dust of time, but hey, its still a tale you can dance to.
Thats the animating paradox behind the entertainment juggernaut that froze in its tracks when Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered theaters closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak just hours shy of the shows opening on March 12, 2020. In the ensuing 18 months, a fitter catchphrase for the musical-in-waiting seemed to be divorced, beheaded, quarantined.
But now it is here, all but exploding with the pent-up energy of its temporary dethroning. And though after seeing a tryout in Chicago I wrote that Six was destined to occupy a top spot in the confetti canon, two questions nagged at me as I awaited its arrival on Broadway: How can a show formatted as a Tudors Got Talent belt-off among six sassy divas also be a thoughtful experiment in reverse victimology? And how can history be teased, ignored and glorified all at once?
Yet somehow Six, by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, isnt a philosophically incoherent jumble; its a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past. I dont just mean that its loud, though it is; you may clutch your ears even before the audience, primed by streaming audio and TikTok, starts singing along to the nine inexhaustibly catchy songs.
I also mean that though gleefully anachronistic, mixing 16th-century marital politics with 21st-century selfies and shade, it suggests a surprising, disturbing and ultimately hopeful commonality. Which shouldnt work, but does.
True, it sometimes works too well; the brand discipline here is almost punishing. What began as a doodle devised during a poetry class at Cambridge University is now as tightly scripted as a space launch. When the wives emerge in turn to tell their stories after a group introduction Remember us from PBS? we discover that they are literally color-coded. As if designed by a marketing expert in a spreadsheet frenzy, each is also equipped with a recognizable look, a signature song genre and a pop star queenspiration.
It only makes sense that Henrys first and longest-wed wife, Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), would be a golden Beyoncé. Her anti-divorce anthem No Way could be retitled Keep a Ring on It: My loyalty is to the Vatican/So if you try to dump me, you wont try that again.
Henrys third and best-loved wife, Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), wears black and white and sings Heart of Stone, a torch song that instantly recalls Adeles Hello. Two wives later, Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly) arrives as a pink, ponytailed Ariana Grande, with a chewy wad of bubble gum pop called All You Wanna Do.
They and the other wives are supposedly competing not just as singers but also, oddly, as losers. The queen that was dealt the worst hand, we are told, shall be the one to lead the band though thats just a figure of speech; the blazing four-woman group that accompanies the show, in studded black pleather, is led by the musical director, Julia Schade.
Thats no accident; choreographer (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille), scenic designer (Emma Bailey) and costume designer (Gabriella Slade) are also women, and so is co-author Moss, who with Jamie Armitage serves as director. That Six so strongly embodies feminism in its staffing while at the same time building its story on a contest of female degradation is an example of how it sometimes seems, on close inspection, to be at cross-purposes with itself.
This would be a more serious problem if the authors were unaware of it. But even when they double down on the Mean Girl catfighting, they do it smartly enough that you trust they are heading somewhere. Thus you enjoy the snarky upspeak of wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), insisting that the other womens woes cannot possibly compare to her decapitation. Her Lily Allen-like number: Dont Lose Ur Head.
Likewise, the humblebragging of No. 4, Anne of Cleves, here called Anna (Brittney Mack), is too deliciously on point to cloy. Get Down, her funky rap about cushy post-divorce life 17 years of luxury in exchange for six months of loveless marriage sounds like Nicki Minaj could sing it tomorrow, tipping her crown to Kanye West: Now Im not saying Im a gold digger, but check my prenup and go figure.
The wit of the conception and the execution the songs are a slick blend of pop grooves, tight lyrics and old-fashioned musical theater craft goes a long way toward keeping the show from sagging. (The almost indecently short 80-minute run time also helps.) The texture is kept sparkly by salvos of puns (live in consort) and thematically dense by the threading of themes. Musical themes, too. Though the score samples hip-hop, electronica, house music and soul, one recurrent melody, introduced on harpsichord during the preshow, is Greensleeves, supposedly written by Henry as a love token to Anne Boleyn. Her color, obvs, is green.
Still, I was grateful when the twist finally came, as it had to, with wife No. 6. In a performance rendered even lovelier by its contrast with the brashness of the previous five, Anna Uzele makes a touching creation of Catherine Parr, who probably did not in real life develop a theory of retroactive regnal sisterhood. But here she does, arguing to her predecessors that history, which has merged them into a monolith defined by the one thing they had in common, must be rewritten to see them as individuals instead.
That Six puts just such a rewritten history onstage is a great thing for a pop musical to do. Lets not quibble about its accuracy, or the way it drops its contest framework cold, just in time for the singalong finale. Its not a treatise but a lark and a provocation and a work of blatantly commercial theater. That means a fantastic physical production and unimprovable performances by a diverse cast whose singing is arena-ready but also characterful.
It also means a certain amount of bullying; those women onstage insisting you have fun are, after all, queens. They may even be queenlier now than they were in 2020; at times I thought they seemed over-primed by the time off.
But if the direction by Moss and Armitage comes just up to the edge of too much, then takes two more steps before turning around and winking, their choices are justified by the shows insistence on finding an accessible, youthful way to talk about women, abuse and power. Call it #MeSix and be prepared: The confetti canon is aimed at you.
Tickets: Brooks Atkinson Theater, Manhattan; sixonbroadway.com.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Credits: Written by Toby Marlow, Lucy Moss; directed by Moss, Jamie Armitage; sets by Emma Bailey; costumes by Gabriella Slade; lighting by Tim Deiling; sound by Paul Gatehouse; choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille; orchestrations, Tom Curran; music supervision, Joe Beighton, Roberta Duchak; music direction, Julia Schade; music coordination, Kristy Norter; production management, Brian Lynch; production stage manager, Bonnie Panson; company manager, Katie Pope; general management, Theater Matters, John E. Gendron. Presented by Kenny Wax, Wendy & Andy Barnes, George Stiles, Kevin McCollum, in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Cast: Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly and Anna Uzele.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times