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 you’re 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 show’s 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, it’s still a tale you can dance to.
That’s 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 show’s 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, isn’t a philosophically incoherent jumble; it’s a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past. I don’t just mean that it’s 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 shouldn’t 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 Henry’s 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 won’t try that again.”
Henry’s third and best-loved wife, Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), wears black and white and sings “Heart of Stone,” a torch song that instantly recalls Adele’s “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 that’s 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.
That’s no accident; the choreographer (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille), scenic designer (Emma Bailey) and costume designer (Gabriella Slade) are also women, and so is the 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 women’s woes cannot possibly compare to her decapitation. Her Lily Allen-like number: “Don’t 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 I’m not saying I’m 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. Let’s not quibble about its accuracy, or the way it drops its contest framework cold, just in time for the singalong finale. It’s 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 show’s 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.
The Brooks Atkinson Theater, Manhattan; sixonbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.