Rewind to 2017. Cambridge’s Musical Theatre Society intends to send one new musical to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Senior Toby Marlow wants that spot—except he hasn’t written a show. So Marlow applies with the outline of the kind of show he and his partner, Lucy Moss, would write: “One that was majority women and non-binary people; one that had a famous subject matter, because it was the Fringe and we wanted to bring people in; one that played around the form, in which we could have songs but diegetically; and that it would be pop music.”
The co-librettists and composers didn’t set out to write the story of Henry VIII’s six wives—just one driven by women. “It was about showing that women and non-binary people can tell stories that don’t include men and be entertaining and funny and amusing and make you laugh,” says Moss, who also co-directs alongside Jamie Armitage. “I’d been Googling a lot: ‘famous groups of women,’” says Marlow. As Moss says, “Six wives was always at the top of that list.”
While they brilliantly reverse-engineered a musical to blend the ingredients of a hit, it’s their talent and vision that actually made it one. After selling out the Fringe, recording a studio album (that clocked in at the 10th most streamed musical theatre album of 2019), touring the U.K., landing a transfer to London’s West End, and bowing in Chicago and Boston, SIX is finally on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
SIX serves snapshots of the Tudor ex-wives via solo songs in a pop concert competition as each Queen vies for the spot of the pop group’s lead singer—to be determined by who had it worst with Henry.
Though the conceit could have come across as tragedy, SIX is edgy, subversive, self-referential, and cheeky. At every turn, undercut earnestness in favor of humor, playfulness, and wit. “Even though it’s an important message, it’s not being starry-eyed,” says Moss. SIX isn’t a soapbox sermon, it’s a bop. It revels in its femininity and ferocity, rather than burdened by it.
In this pop concert framing, Moss and Marlow’s score commandeers the spotlight. The pair pepper in a musical motif of “Greensleeves” (the song Henry wrote for his second wife, Anne Boleyn) throughout the score. Each Queen embodies her own pop genre, inspired by a highlighted moment in her life. For Catherine of Aragon, the writers chose the Queen’s refusal of Henry’s demand for an annulment, while Katherine Howard, historically viewed as a temptress but re-examined here to highlight the abuse she suffered as a pre-teen royal, echoes Britney Spears.
As Moss says, “One of our major aims was considering, ‘How can we show that there are parallels between the female experience 500 years ago and today?’”
Wrapped in a pop concert package, Marlow and Moss present a meaningful musical, one about “understanding who we listen to in history and why and who we haven’t listened to,” says Moss. We’re listening now.