Listen up—let me tell you a story. A story you think you’ve heard before. Have you heard about the history-themed musical with a pop score and a diverse cast that’s one of the buzziest new Broadway musicals in years? No, not the one with Aaron Burr. The newest contender in town reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII as pop princesses ready to “pick up a pen and a microphone” and rewrite their stories and reclaim their significance. Spice Girls meets Hamilton? That’s not far off for the royalty remix that is Six.
It began as a student project at Cambridge University and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017, and since then it has exploded into a cultural and global phenomenon, with a sold-out West End production, a U.K. tour, an Australian engagement, and a Broadway bow scheduled to begin performances in February, with opening set for March 12. The musical can also currently be seen on a few select Norwegian Cruise Line trips—an unprecedented move for a show that has yet to hit Broadway.
Indeed the New York run of Six seems, if not like an afterthought, then just one piece of its master plan for worldwide domination. The show’s North American debut broke box office records in a 12-week run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater last summer, then played American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, and the Ordway in St. Paul, Minn. Another 12-week Chicago run has already been announced for the summer.
Along the way Six has developed an intense cult following, predominantly among young women, who come back repeatedly, including for special performances that include pre-show themed tours at London’s National Portrait Gallery or sing-along performances. (Any performance can become a sing-along: In the West End recently, the young women behind me almost involuntarily sang along to Anne Boleyn’s rousing “Don’t Lose Your Head.”) The original U.K. cast recording has more than 50 million streams on Spotify (and climbing at the rate of about 300,000 streams a day).
I got on the Six train early, seeing the show at London’s Arts Theatre in March 2019 (and revisiting it twice since then), before North American engagements had been announced. I immediately fell for the show’s empowering feminist stories, and songs which are the definition of earworms. I also learned a good amount of history I didn’t know before, as I didn’t go to school in England. I mean, why watch six dreary hours of Wolf Hall when you can learn Tudor history, with a beat, in 75 minutes?
The story of the show’s making has become part of its fan mythology. Its authors, Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, began writing it while still in college. A campus theatre group was accepting applications for a show to go to Edinburgh, so Marlow asked Moss to collaborate with him on a show that positioned the monarch’s wives as a girl-power pop group.
“I remember being like, ‘Oh my God, that could be so bad and so lame,’” Moss confessed in a TheaterMania interview last year. “Once we started writing it, I was super on board. But the first imagining? Even now, if you explain the show to people, a lot of them will be like, ‘Ewww.’”
They were guided by a manifesto from their first writing session, which mandated: create interesting parts for women; uncover parallels between Tudor times and today; show that women can tell interesting stories and be funny without men; and make sure the musical is aware of its own campiness.
“Toby and I have loads of female friends who are incredible performers,” Moss said in an interview for the Chicago Shakes program. “But they don’t often have opportunities to show how funny or brilliant they are, because many musicals don’t have complex, comedic parts for women.”
The writers did not expect much from the initial Edinburgh production, but there was immediate interest in moving the show. Producers Andy and Wendy Barnes of Global Musicals saw the musical there, and West End producer Kenny Wax and composer George Stiles saw it when the writers revived the production on the Cambridge campus for a few performances.
“Back then, there were about two lights and costumes that cost about £10, and now it’s a full-on pop concert,” Moss told The Edmonton Journal. “We had written it in a rush without really worrying about it, but after the Fringe, we did about two weeks of rewrites to make the songs lyrically more Tudor-y and comedic. But actually, the essence and core of the show is really similar to what it was on the first night.”
Like Hamilton, Six fuses pop references with musical theatre ones. Each of the queens is inspired by a different pop princess: Catherine of Aragon is Beyoncé; Anne Boleyn is Avril Lavigne and Lily Allen; Jane Seymour is Adele and Sia; Anna of Cleves is Nicki Minaj and Rihanna; Katherine Howard is Ariana Grande; and Catherine Parr is Alicia Keys.
And along with Easter eggs throughout the score invoking Beyoncé, Kanye West, and the Spice Girls are gems for musical theatre fans as well (lyrical puns that link Jane Seymour’s name to the protagonist of Little Shop of Horrors, for instance). There are plenty of other anachronisms: Anne Boleyn is positioned as a fame-hungry influencer taking selfies (“Sorry, not sorry”); Anna of Cleves is set up with King Henry via Tinder swipes.
But it’s not all pop-culture candy for its own sake. In the ART program, Marlow noted that he and Moss found ways to use pop conventions to forward the narrative.
“When we started writing the songs, it was tricky to find a balance between trying to make them sound like actual pop songs while also achieving the same level of storytelling and humor as our favorite musical theatre songs,” Marlow conceded. Indeed, the pair worried at first about the repetitiveness of pop, but soon discovered this liability could be a storytelling asset. In Katherine Howard’s song “All You Wanna Do,” for instance, the meaning of the song’s chorus is gradually overturned. “At the start, it’s flirtatious and cheeky, but by the end the chorus becomes a lament about her repeated abuse at the hands of the men in her life.”
With all this momentum and enthusiasm for the show, even before it hits Broadway, how could Six go wrong? As with any Broadway prospect, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. For one, the show is a 75-minute concert-style musical, with minimal scenes and a loose framing device of the queens competing in a sing-off over who had it hardest with the tempestuous monarch. And while the musical thrives on the repeat business of its intense following, will American audiences do that at Broadway prices? They’re $159 for most orchestra seats and $79 for the mezzanine; meanwhile West End prices range from £23.75 to £64.75 (roughly $31-85).
Shows with cult followings that move from smaller spaces to the big time sometimes flail in larger venues with higher prices. Be More Chill quickly transferred from Off-Broadway to the Main Stem last season, thanks to an intense online buzz, but after lukewarm reviews and no Tony nominations, the show closed in a few months. What’s more, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre has 1,069 seats, three times the size of the Arts Theatre (350). And that 75-minute running time allows the West End production to accommodate two-show evenings three times a week, making for nine performances a week. Maybe the Broadway production will take note and follow suit—as Freestyle Love Supreme did—but for now they’re planning a traditional eight-show week.
Box office success or no, the allure of possible Tony Awards as a marketing asset is certainly one reason to bring Six to Broadway. Kevin McCollum, the piece’s lead producer, has a track record, with shows like Avenue Q winning top Tonys, then going on to succeed Off-Broadway and regionally.
If the production stops so far are any indication, the musical is connecting with its fans and living up to the hype. There’s a wall of fan art and a mirror selfie station in the lobby of the Arts Theatre; at ART, there was a throne for photos and a wall where audience members could put up Post-its listing their own personal queens. In London, audience members are encouraged to take out their phones for the final medley.
At a recent West End performance, the Arts Theatre lobby was crowded with fans behind purple velvet ropes clamoring for the cast’s autographs. Waiting in line for the bathroom, one theatregoer captured the enthusiasm for the musical, saying that while she usually can’t wait for a musical to be over, with Six, she wanted it to go on forever.
Long live the queens.
Suzy Evans is a former senior editor of this magazine.
Creative credits for photos: Book, music, and lyrics: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss; direction: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage; choreography: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille; sets: Emma Bailey; costumes: Gabriella Slade; lighting design: Tim Deiling; sound design: Paul Gatehouse.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Six was the only musical with an original score set for the Broadway season at press time. There are three others: Mrs. Doubtfire, Diana: A True Musical Story, and Flying Over Sunset.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!