Much like Broadway musicals 50 years ago were seen through the lens of pre-Hair and post-Hair, musicals today and perhaps for the next decade will be talked about as pre- and post-Hamilton, with Lin Manuel Miranda's masterwork likely to hover in the periphery of the conversation about any modern-sounding musical — especially one that incorporates rap.
Fair or unfair, it's impossible to think about Six without imagining the elevator pitch: It's Hamilton for the six wives of Henry VIII, but more feminist and with a more pop-influenced score. You know — divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
29-year-old composer-lyricists Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, who began work on Six in 2016 while they were finishing their senior year at Cambridge University, were no doubt familiar with Hamilton, which had premiered on Broadway the previous year and swept the Tonys in June 2016. The show's influence can be heard in the sort of rap-battle style in which the six women interact with each other and narrate the past, and in the tempo and tone of a couple of the songs — but this is hardly a comprehensive historical tour of 16th Century England, and the similarities mostly end there.
Framed like a rock concert, with an all-female band of "ladies in waiting" playing on stage, the six wives never leave the stage for the show's tight 80 minutes. Each gets a song in which to tell the story of their doomed royal marriage and life, and, according to the program notes, each of the six has a pop-diva influence or two on her vocal style, though this is sort of loose. As the women tell the audience from the outset, this is a competition, and they're each going to try to "win" by telling the saddest, most sympathy-enducing tale.
We start with wife number one, Catherine of Aragon, who was originally betrothed to Henry's 15-year-old brother Arthur, who died less than two years into their marriage. Catherine's story is indeed pretty tragic, having had multiple stillborn babies and children who died very young, and in this telling, Khaila Wilcoxon plays the first Catherine as amusingly rageful and unapologetic. Her song, "No Way," sets the tone for the rest — it's a bouncy, insistent breakup song in the style of Beyonce or Shakira, and it's all about how she gave Henry his first child, Mary, only to be cast aside and sent to a nunnery at age 30 while Henry began formulating his version of the Church of England where divorce would be allowed.
None of the show's nine songs are throwaways, and a couple are bangers, like Anne Bowlyn's "Don't Lose Your Head" (get it?) and the very Gwen Stefani-esque "All You Wanna Do." The power ballads sung by Jane Seymour ("Hear of Stone") and Catherine Parr ("I Don't Need Your Love") are also terrific simulacra of radio hits by Sia and her ilk. As derivative as everything may be, it's hard not to smile and tap your foot and want to hear the soundtrack again later — it's a sugar rush of melodies that feel both familiar and new, telling stories you sort of thought you know but probably didn't. (And the score took home a Tony at last year's awards.)
The direction, by Jamie Armitage and Lucy Moss, is funny, brisk, and spot on. And all of the six main players are extremely strong singers — especially Jasmine Forsberg, who plays Jane Seymour.
The musical will likely have a long life on Broadway and on tour, as it's a crowd-pleaser that also takes up less time than the average Hollywood movie, with nary a slow moment. And what better way to introduce teens to some European history, with soem pop tunes and diva posturing.
Six also has a solid message at the end — I'm not really spoiling anything in telling you that the characters give up "competing" for the saddest story and decide that it's better to claim their time as individuals in history, as people who were not just wives of some long-dead king. They were women with lives and loves and indignities and tragedies that defined them, even though we would have never known about them were it not for their brushes with royalty — and Henry VIII's apparent lack of a moral code.
The six wives, dead, beheaded, or otherwise, become in this telling much more than their sorry fates, and far more than a joke of the patriarchal past. That feels important, even if the musical is mostly just delightful fluff.
'Six' plays through March 19 at the Orpheum Theater. Find tickets here.