The Broadway-bound musical Six opens with a twist on Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.” Rather than introducing “the six married murderesses” of Cook County Jail, “Ex-Wives” introduces the six wives of Henry VIII: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
This catchy cadence has long cemented the fates of the Tudor king’s queens—Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr—in popular imagination. But as Michael Paulson reports for the New York Times, Six, which will arrive on Broadway early next year, is part of a burgeoning body of scholarship and fiction working to flesh out the narratives of Henry VIII’s wives beyond reductive one-word summaries.
Penned by then-Cambridge undergraduates Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in 2017, Six started out in a 100-seat venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before moving to London’s West End, Chicago and, now, Broadway.
In a 2018 interview with BBC News’ Steve Holden, 25-year-old Moss and 24-year-old Marlow said they wrote Six as a show that they would choose to watch themselves, drawing heavily on musical motifs popularized by artists such as Adele, Rihanna, Ariana Grande and Beyoncé.
Moss added, “We wanted to write loads of meaty, funny parts for women.”
Rather than adhering to a traditional format in which characters spontaneously burst into song, the pair placed their cast in a makeshift talent competition designed to crown the wife whose story is the most tragic: As one lyric says, “The Queen who was dealt the worst hand / Shall be the one to lead the band.”
Over the course of the 80-minute show, each of Henry’s former queens takes the microphone for a rousing solo: Aragon, the king’s once-beloved first wife, channels a Beyoncé ballad in “No Way,” referencing her refusal to submit to a divorce by proclaiming, “You made me your wife / So I’ll be queen to the end of my life.” The much-maligned Boleyn channels Lily Allen while defending her fiery temperament, saying, “Sorry, not sorry about what I said / I’m just trying to have some fun / Don’t worry, don’t worry / Don’t lose your head.”
Seymour, often described as the only wife Henry truly loved, gets to the crux of the matter in “Heart of Stone,” singing, “But I know, without my son / Your love could disappear.” Cleves, meanwhile, claims she emerged from her short-lived marriage better off than before: “You, you said that I tricked ya / ‘Cause I, I didn’t look like my profile picture / Too, too bad I don’t agree / So I’m gonna hang it up for everyone to see…” (Known as the “King’s beloved sister,” the rejected queen received a generous settlement and spent the rest of her days in England, outliving not only her former husband, but both of the wives that followed her and her one-time stepson, Edward VI.)
Henry’s youngest wife, Howard, bemoans her treatment in “All You Wanna Do,” cataloguing the sexual objectification she’d experienced from a young age and dismissing those who just want to “Please me, squeeze me / Birds and the bees me.”
The last of the six is Parr, who is remembered largely for outliving her husband but was also an accomplished intellectual with a passion for Protestantism—and Thomas Seymour, whom she married shortly after the king’s death to great scandal. “I Don’t Need Your Love” finds Parr touting these little-known aspects of her life, asking, “Why can’t I tell that story? / ‘Cause in history / I’m fixed as one of six / And without him / I disappear.”
In the musical’s final song, “Six,” Marlow and Moss theorize what would’ve happened if the six had rejected Henry’s advances, inventing an alternative reality where the women decide to come together to form a girl band. It is, of course, an implausible scenario, but it builds on the Six’s larger argument, which is that the six wives of Henry VIII should stop being viewed solely in relation to their marital status: As they sing, “We’re one of a kind / No category / Too many years / Lost in his story / We’re free to take / Our crowning glory.”
Six is just one of many modern retellings—and reframings—of the Tudor dynasty. Recent scholarship surrounding Anne Boleyn, for example, has tended toward rehabilitation, painting the Protestant queen as an ardent religious reformer and powerful figure in her own right rather than reducing her to the accusations and slander that portended her downfall. Fictional works also share this interest in understanding the royal consorts as individuals, not just stereotypes. Showtime’s “The Tudors” might be driving some history buffs up a wall, but Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Boleyn adds vivacity and depth to her story, winning empathy for a woman too often vilified as wholly unsympathetic. Starz’s “The Spanish Princess,” while vastly dramatized, spotlights a younger, bolder version of Catherine of Aragon oft-ignored in favor of presenting a dowdy, unattractive queen long past her prime. Alison Weir’s ongoing Six Tudor Queens series, meanwhile, has raised several controversial theories about the king’s wives, even suggesting Henry ended his marriage with Anne of Cleves after discovering she had already conceived a child with another man.
In terms of historical accuracy, Marlow and Moss’ musical isn’t a documentary, but while the six queens may not have belted out their woes in Top 40-style songs, they did boast far richer personal lives than history gives them credit for. As Parr sings in her six-minute solo, “Remember that I was a writer / I wrote books and psalms and meditations / Fought for female education / So all my women could independently / Study scripture / I even got a woman to paint my picture.”
Six will begin previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on February 13, 2020. The show, scheduled to open March 12, will feature a soon-to-be announced cast accompanied by an all-female band called the Ladies in Waiting.
(Smithsonian.com, August 5, 2019)