Six The Musical: rewriting history through the female voice

(Photo by Kyle Head via Unsplash)

“Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, Divorced, Beheaded, Died.” This children’s rhyme is the legacy of six extraordinary women whose lives deserve to be separated from their bloody deaths. Six The Musical is a reimagining of Henry VIII’s queens’ lives and sees them performing together fictitiously as a girl-band and competing against each other for who had the worst experience with their notorious husband. The writers of Six Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss detail how their six-point plan was essential in shaping the shows writing process. Marlow and Moss’ aims included providing a different perspective on the six queens separate from their status as wives and they used these powerful female characters to tell their own experiences through the female voice, when historically their stories have been told predominantly by men. Six began as a handful of sold-out workshop performances at the Arts Theatre in 2017, before transitioning to the fully designed and costumed production currently showing at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

The show is also on tour around the UK and has claimed international success in America and Australia. The pop concert genre amplifies the silliness and campness of the show and combined with the powerful stories conveyed exclusively by women, even with regards to the stage band, the empowering message that these queens are taking back the narrative of their own lives is portrayed in a fun, entertaining way. The wives of Henry VIII have historically been referred to as a collective but Six succeeds in giving each of the queens their own identities, with this message of uniqueness and individuality being encapsulated in the line ‘We’re one- of a kind- no category’ in the title song ‘SIX’ and each queen getting her own solo song. With an entirely unique concept and new writing team of the next generation, Six, according to producers Andy and Wendy Barnes ‘begins to break through the seemingly unbreakable glass ceiling.’ 

Producer George Stiles remarks how Six retells the lives of women perhaps half-remembered in a fresh, contemporary way and in turn celebrates six extraordinary queens in a way relevant to all. It is this accessibility to all audiences, not just those who have studied these queens’ history, that makes Six such a fun and appealing show. Despite the main premise of the show, being the six women’s formation into a pop group, being fictional, the show is rooted in historic facts. The shows historic foundations has led historian Lucy Worsley to describe Six as more than just brilliant music, highlighting it as a satire on how the nuances of these queens’ stories have changed over the centuries, depending on who’s telling it. Worsley comments on how a lack of historical evidence has led to cliched views of the later wives, such as the meek Seymour, ugly Cleves, and promiscuous Howard. Six cleverly uses these stereotypical views to mock the historians of the past, that have as Worsley claims, ‘judged and conformed to the cliches of these powerful women.’ Audiences therefore leave with a freshly feminist and ironically more historically accurate depiction of these queens than the cliched views they entered with. 

Producer Kenny Wax details how he was encouraged by unnamed individuals in the musical industry to introduce Henry VIII as a character to give the show commercial legs. I found this suggestion particularly interesting, as to make the show more appealing commercially a leading male character was thought to be needed. Is a show featuring only women believed to be that much of a threatening concept to 21st century theatre audiences, that those within the industry felt the patriarchal presence of Henry as a character was needed? By adding a man such as Henry who brutally asserted his authority as king and the queens’ husband by calling for several of their deaths, his presence would have acted hypocritically to the very message of the show. Six’s writers Marlow and Moss felt the same, with them and the show’s producers deciding against including Henry, thus preserving the very heart of the show’s message of how powerful and brilliant these queens were and could have been if their futures were not cut short. By also not including Henry, this reinforces the idea that the six queens’ stories do not need to be about or include men in order to be entertaining, furthering the show from any sensationalised narrative of these women’s deaths.  

Even 500 years later, Six highlights how there are still parallels to be found in the female experience. In the song ‘Haus of Holbein’ its stated that “No one wants a waist over nine inches”, which shows the long-continued pressure on women for the ‘perfect’ body. The demand and potentially harmful effects of achieving female beauty standards for the benefit of men is further referenced in the line “So what, the makeup contains lead poison? At least your complexion will bring all the boys in.” This song and staging links Anne of Cleves’ rejection by Henry for her appearance with modern dating apps in which a woman’s worth is judged by her appearance. The last queen, Catherine Parr, questions the point of a competition which defines the queens primarily as Henry’s wives rather than individuals. The other queens, realising they have been robbed of their individuality, abandons the competition, declaring they don’t need Henry’s love to feel validated as people. Uniting as powerful, unique individuals in their pop group, the queens conclude the show by rewriting their stories, no longer being “Lost in history” and finally gaining freedom from their ties to Henry as they “Used to be six wives, but no, we’re one of a kind no category.”   

Returning to London’s West End after lockdown and seeing Six reminded me why I love the theatre and why I chose to study history, specifically women’s history at university. The cast I saw featured incredible diversity with the queens represented in a variety of races and body shapes, thus making the show accessible and relatable to all women in a modern way. Six acts as a reminder that too often women are forgotten in history and that the queens’ legacies deserve to be valued and celebrated even despite their lives ultimately being dictated by patriarchal authorities. The show as a celebration of the individual six queens’ lives was showcased in the encore song, ‘Megasix’, where audiences were dancing alongside the queens who had used their voices to sing their empowering narrative quite literally from the rooftops. I left the show feeling proud to be a woman and with an overwhelming reminder to always embrace my uniqueness, as this will lead to my most, powerful, authentic self. 

Six The Musical Official Programme, (London: Vaudeville Theatre, 2021).

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