Six, possibly one of the most important musicals of our generation, has finally arrived in Melbourne, after originally being set to reign over the Comedy Theatre’s stage two years ago, before delays due to COVID-19. Six is the brainchild of students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who created the glitzy pop musical across 10 non-consecutive days in the hopes of providing a platform for the musical talents of their female friends, and to rewrite how women are being portrayed in theatre.
Six, possibly one of the most important musicals of our generation, has finally arrived in Melbourne, after originally being set to reign over the Comedy Theatre’s stage two years ago, before delays due to COVID-19. This particular musical is especially inspiring for students, as its ideation all began in the classrooms of Cambridge University. Six is the brainchild of students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who created the glitzy pop musical across 10 non-consecutive days in the hopes of providing a platform for the musical talents of their female friends and rewriting how women are being portrayed in theatre.
Six originally premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017, and is now a hit on both Broadway and international stages, having already achieved a cult following and a Tony award for its soundtrack. Six presents a reclaimed ‘HERstory’ of King Henry XIII’s six wives through witty, sassy and lyrically-feminist pop songs that display the power of women when “linked, not ranked”. As one viewer pointed out, “if they had taught history like this at school, I would have done a lot more of it”.
Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!
The familiar tragedy of King Henry’s six spouses is retold through new lens as the six queens compete over who experienced the worst marriage to the notorious Tudor king, each with their own extremely catchy pop ballads imbued with centuries worth of angst and emotion. The incredibly written music score is probably one of the only instances you will get to see the classic Greensleeves twerking to or have a rave at the famous painter, Hans Holbein’s, own home.
Each of the queens is portrayed through the iconic hallmarks of our own 21st-century pop divas, felt most palpably through their solo tracks. Six’s take on Catherine of Aragon (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) injects powerful R&B stylings reminiscent of Beyoncé, while Anne Boleyn (Kala Gare) adopts Lily Allen’s unapologetic cheekiness in the retelling of her story; a catalyst that led to her beheading. Meanwhile, poor Jane Seymour (Loren Hunter) croons a heartfelt ballad aptly titled ‘Heart of Stone’ with powerful, soulful vocals in Adele-like fashion, as Anne of Cleves (Kiana Daniele) borrows ostensible inspiration from Rihanna, delivering some next-level amounts of sass and attitude to the group’s dynamic. Katherine Howard (Chelsea Dawson) bears Ariana Grande’s enigmatic ponytail while exuding the charming, flirty nature of 2000s pop diva Britney Spears.
Lastly (but certainly not the least), queen Catherine Parr (Shannen Ayce Quan and Vidya Makan from the original Australian cast), who is known as the sole surviving wife of the tyrannical king, questions the nature of this rivalry by comparing the “abuse and trauma” they have all faced. With the soulful depth of Alicia Keys’ vocal techniques and lyricism, she helps the other queens realise their agency in reinventing their histories to encapsulate their identities beyond what their ex-husband made them out to be, spinning the narrative that King Henry’s six wives were the driving forces behind his fame.
You may recognise some of the incredibly catchy songs on the score, such as ‘Get Down’ and ‘All You Want To Do’, which have already amassed over 30 million streams on Spotify. Despite being about a gruesome beheading, even ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’ has been listened to nearly 60 million times on Spotify alone. You also may have heard the popular TikTok sound: “you bring the corsets, we’ll bring the cinches, no one waist that’s over nine inches”, which was actually pulled from the incredibly amusing ‘House of Holbein’. They are brought to life by the diverse vocal range amongst Six’s Australian cast—injecting character into these personas through whistle notes, Aussie-style rap and deep altos, the actresses are able to spin their own versions of these classic hits.
Before attending, all assumptions of what a musical should be—must be—brushed aside. Its defiance of classic theatre tropes may be why Six, which toes the line of being a rock concert, is not for everyone. Like, Come From Away, which graced the Comedy Theatre’s stage three years prior, this modern musical strays away from the typical use of stage elements and demonstrates how minimalism could be musical theatre’s reimagined future.
The stage may be bare, but for the “ladies in waiting”, the female musicians' quartet perfectly aligns with each queen’s personal style, from jazzy numbers to rap anthems. However, Six also lacks a cohesive storyline, as each song chronicles the wives’ gruesome, tragic tales, reminiscent of the original Horrible Histories trademark style. The musical runtime is also brief; with no intermission and a duration of an hour and a half, the line Six walks between being a musical and pop concert is thinned. The banter between the six ladies, weaved through songs and dialogue, is at times whiny and insensitive. For instance, the queens go as far as comparing the extent of their miscarriages and abuse. Thankfully, all misconceptions are eventually addressed by the third act.
There are also no traditional scene or lighting changes; strips of LED lights and 16th-century ruffs become indicators of settings, which at times gives off the visual impression of a Fifth Harmony concert. They leave the iconic rhinestone-clad costumes to fill the gap as the stage’s main visual elements. Each queen is privy to her own signature style, and the costumes are elaborately adorned with fishnet leggings, corsets and of course, crowns. Originally devised by Gabrielle Slade, the costumes are so well-designed that they even foreshadow the queens’ fates—examples being Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard’s symbolic ironic chokers, who ended up getting decapitated.
An assumption often made is that Six was inspired by Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit show Hamilton, with both having found their footing as modern reinventions of major historical events. However, the Six cast are quick to point out their position as a feminist movement. With an all-female, LGBTQ-friendly cast, this musical aims to break down patriarchal structures observed throughout history. Vidya Makan, who plays Australia’s Catherine Parr, conveys this message of power and hope for the future of women, meant to be instilled in viewers’ personal lives. Makan even says that the cast dub the audience their seventh queen.
This revolutionary musical also intends to defy the culture of the era it depicts. The six Australian queens were directed to keep their own local accents rather than adopting the original British, in order to demonstrate the flexibility of Six’s feminist messages in various contexts. Its emphasis on inclusivity, similar to Hamilton’s ethnically diverse cast, contributes to the shaping of musical theatre’s future, where music, casting and set design are able to progress further.
Despite being an all-female cast, Six is also loved by people of all genders. As the musical reached its final throes, I could overhear the elderly man sitting next to me tell his wife, “What a great musical”. If that isn’t a resounding seal of approval, then I don’t know what is. The cast also commented on how much they love seeing all the husbands, fathers and brothers in the audience appreciate the show, and by extension their support of women and their reshaping of history.
Six requires an open-minded approach, as it is essentially taking generous liberties with history, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a fantastic watch. It holds the mirror up to allow reflection on centuries worth of women being painted in a misogynistic light, through its incorporation of the modern into tradition. You may learn a thing or two about the famous ex-wives of King Henry, while receiving valuable lessons in feminism, along with a glimpse into the modernisation of musical theatre. It seems that reclaiming history through catchy tunes is one key to Broadway success—though, let’s hope we don’t end up with a musical retelling of the Black Plague in the future.