Six: A Modern Musical Sensation

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Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Does that bring up any memories from grade 9 history class? Think back to that unit again, does anything about it make you say “Man, this needs to be a musical.” To these two English college students, apparently something did. 

Six is the brainchild of young writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow. It explores the stories of Henry the 8th’s six wives by reuniting them as an pop, early 2000’s-esque girl group. Before the pandemic, there were 5 running  productions of the show, with a Broadway run slated to officially open on March 13th. (Which never got a chance due to COVID-19) But Six played its first professional performance just three years ago, which begs the question how did a grassroots show from the West End gain widespread acclaim so quickly?

The project began when Toby Marlow was picked to write a musical for the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This annual showcase of the arts hosts over 3,000 attractions a year. It’s the largest arts festival in the world. To be successful, you must stand out. 

 Toby didn’t have a clue what the subject of the show would be, but already knew he wanted to push the limits of traditional theatre. Instead of the brassy ballads and ensemble numbers with giant extravagant sets that are prevalent in most shows, his show would feature pop numbers and protritize choreography over excessive set dressing. He also knew he wanted the cast to be led by women or non binary individuals, who would play famous figures of somesort. 

He considered concepts like “The Real Housewives of Shakespeare” or “The Three Witches of Macbeth” before he thought about the six wives of Henry the 8th. His first note reads: “6 women have been characterized by the ways they died, not by their lives. Stereotyped into 6 roles: betrayed wife, temptress, good woman, ugly sister, bad girl and mother figure. So much more than these limited roles.”

You can see these strong foundational ideas in the final version. Through the how we are introduced to the queens in the opening number, “Ex-wives” and the lyrics of the final number of the show “Six”. His second thought, an eventually history making thought was “I need Lucy!”

The Lucy in question was Lucy Moss, a then 23 year old history student at Cambridge. She had met Toby when directing a production at their university and they became fast friends. Coincidentally, when Toby called her to ask her about his idea, she was just leaving Antonia Fraser’s house, an author of a well known book on Henry the 8ths wives. Over winter break they emailed the theatre society that commissioned Toby to write the show to tell them about the concept. They immediately loved it. So, Toby and Lucy got to work. 

The first thing they had to decide on were the characters. Obviously the 6 queens were going to be the lead roles and Henry wasn’t going to be included. The whole point of the show was to emancipate these women from him. However they considered including Hans Holbein the Younger as a comic relief or younger kids as the chorus. In the end they decided to have just the six queens, to flesh out each character as much as possible. 

Each queen is inspired by one or two pop icons. Catherine of Aragon is modeled after Beyonce, Anne Boelyn after Miley Cyrus and Avril Lavigne and Jane Seymour after Adele. The character of Anna of Cleves was inspired by Nicki Minaj, Kathrine Howard by Britney Spears (the 2020 #freebritney movement adding to their similarities ) and finally Catherine Parr by Alicia Keys. 

 They wrote the show with the intent of convincing the audience that these women were wronged by Henry sure, but their stories can and should exist separate from his. When writing the songs and choreographing they drew a lot of inspiration from a 2011 video album by Beyoncé called “Live at Roseland: Elements of 4”. A big challenge for them was balancing out tudor jokes with pop songs. Lucy wanted the songs to be “normal” enough that anyone could play them too their friends. However, it was about Tudor women who’s daily lives were nothing like ours. The middle ground involved a whole lot of minute details in referencing the real life queens for all the history buffs to enjoy. From Boleyn’s green sleeves in reference to the famous poem, to Howard and Boleyn’s chokers to represent their beheadings. The closer you look, the more genius details you see reminding you that you are in fact, learning history. 

At the end of 2016, Lucy and Toby were struggling to choose a title for their unfinished show. Their first idea “Six” was what they ended up going with, but that didn’t stop them from brainstorming many other ideas including “Sixth Harmony” and “Live in Consort”. 

 

With the fringe festival approaching, Toby and Lucy assembled a cast composed of their fellow students to make up the original cast in Edinburgh. The show was an instant hit. They sold out every single show they performed (after 4 nights of close to full houses) and influential producers started to take notice. They were offered very tempting deals to sell the rights. Thankfully they didn’t, and West End producer Kenny Wax offered to partner with them to produce the show commercially. 

 

Their time in London began with a four day showcase, starring their first professional cast including Natalie May Paris, who is still in the show today. This cast would go on to record the cast album, which has now been streamed over 100 million times by their massive and fairly young online following. This musicals modern themes, recognizable costumes and catchy songs have made it extremely popular among gen-z,  a major cause of the show’s rapid success. 

 

After the London run, the show went on a tour of England in 2018. That cast comprised of Jarniea Richard-Noel (Cathrine Of Aragon), Millie O’Connell (Anne Boelyn), Natalie May Paris (Jane Seymour), Alexia Mcintosh (Anna of Cleves), Aimee Atickson (Kathrine Howard), Maiya Queeshed-Breed (Cathrine Parr) and Grace Mouat (Swing) would debut the show on the West End and become the “OG” cast for a lot of fans. 

 

Their initial West End run was supposed to be 11 weeks long, but it just kept on getting extended due to sell out performances. They were nominated for five Olivier Awards, none of which they won but their performance on the broadcast gave them great free advertising. Norweigen Cruise Lines reached out to see about staging the production at sea and Six opened on the Norweign Bliss and Breakaway. A global pandemic couldn’t even stop their growth. On December 4th they are set to be the first musical to reopen at limited capacity after Britain’s lockdown. 

 

Six is so different from other musicals I’m hesitant to even put it in that category. It’s more of a concert, with  characters and a storyline.The creators of Six have proven time and time again how dedicated they are to making Six as accessible as possible. This show is “one of a kind, no category!”