Spoiler alert: Things generally haven’t gone well for women who married King Henry VIII.
“Six,” a slyly saucy pop musical about the ill-starred queens, has already stormed stages in Britain, North America, Australia and even on cruise ships. Embraced by a youthful fan base for its catchy (and social-media-amplified) score, it has been fast-tracked to Broadway, where it is previewing to full houses at the 1,027-seat Brooks Atkinson Theater before opening March 12.
The show, just 80 minutes long, has a simple conceit — They’re Tudor queens! And they’re pop stars! — as it imagines a concert in which the women compete for audience approval with songs describing marital misfortune (in two cases, beheadings). Think wall-to-wall wordplay about sex and schism, belted by a diverse group of performers whose style, sound and steps are inspired by superstars including Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj.
“Six” is the remarkably recent brainchild of two remarkably young theater-lovers: Toby Marlow, a 25-year-old who refers to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as “my mums,” and Lucy Moss, a droll 26-year-old who wears Harry Potter spectacles and neon-detailed Buffalo platform sneakers.
They met at Cambridge University, where he was studying English literature and she was studying history, and, while finishing their degrees, wrote the witty book, music and lyrics for their schoolmates to perform at a 2017 summer theater festival.
The show’s origins are so recent that Marlow and Moss still have much of its history in their phones — the Google docs where they came up with their six- (yup) point plan; the voice memos where he beatboxed ideas; the Instagram photos of early rehearsals; the text messages with a scouting producer.
There are analog keepsakes too — handwritten notes they made along the way. Here’s how they developed “Six,” illustrated by artifacts from their creative collaboration.
Find a Friend
They met at an A.T.M.
It was 2014, the night of a freshman play, “Road,” a gritty drama co-directed by Moss in one of her early, earnest efforts. Marlow was in the audience, and he was wowed.
So when he spotted her a few minutes later in a bank lobby, he said hello. “I fan-girled her,” he said. “She was like, ‘Thanks.’”
Moss: Toby clearly hadn’t seen anything good by this point, because it was so, so overdirected. I had sat all summer and planned every single scene before I got there. I’m pretty sure there were some horrendous accents in there as well.
The next time Moss assistant-directed a student play, Marlow auditioned, desperately trying to impress her by acting funny. He got the part: a video game bear.
Marlow: I came back to your room after rehearsals once, and we talked about dance, and you thought I was a dancer because I knew this guy who did YouTube dancing in heels.
Moss: I’m going to go ahead and say I definitely didn’t think you were a dancer.
Marlow: And then we went out dancing a lot, ourselves, and became friends.
Moss, who grew up in the Ealing district of West London, arrived at theater via dance. At an early age she took ballet in a church hall and began choreographing shows with her friends. She spent two years in dance training at a musical theater school before enrolling at Cambridge.
Marlow, who grew up in Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, was a child performer and songwriter who not only did school plays but also landed parts in small film and television projects. He took a gap year to perform and travel before arriving at college.
They had both chosen Cambridge, in part, because of a strong student theater scene that has launched such luminaries as Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Eddie Redmayne.
He didn’t know what the subject would be, but he had established four guiding principles, reflecting his politics and passions: It would have a cast that was predominantly female or nonbinary; it would have a famous subject matter; it would experiment with theatrical form, and the genre would be pop (“because it’s the best kind of music”).
Ideas started to percolate: “Real Housewives of Shakespeare”? A back story for the three witches of Macbeth? How about something on the six wives of Henry VIII? That could be interesting.
A few weeks later, Marlow’s mind started to wander during a “supervision” — Cambridge lingo for a small-group session led by a professor. The class was practicing comparative poetry analysis, but Marlow was more concerned with the six wives. “Wait, what if it’s a pop concert?” he thought. “And they could have, like, microphones!” He made a note to himself: “Need Lucy!”
This is where the story gets a little woo-woo. Marlow had been reading Antonia Fraser’s “The Wives of Henry VIII.” When he tracked down Moss, it turned out she had just left Fraser’s house — she was friendly with the author’s grandson.
Moss: I remember thinking, “That sounds like it could be so bad.” It could be really twee. So I remember being like, “If we do this, let’s just make sure it’s not bad.”
Over Christmas, Marlow continued to plow through Fraser’s book; Moss watched a documentary series, by Lucy Worsley, called “Six Wives.”
Moss: A lot of the history I was doing for my degree was feminist history and revisionist history, so it chimed with how I was already approaching historical subject matters. That was when I was like, “Ooh, I think this could be cool, as a feminist thing. There is a different take on the wives, and there is this historical wrong to be redressed.” It was finding an angle.
The die was cast.
Marlow: I sent an email to the Musical Theater Society: “OK, we’re going to do the six wives, and me and Lucy are going to write it. Woo!” And they’re like, “Great.” And then they were like, “We need a title.”
Early in 2017, Marlow and Moss met in her college room. Come March, they would need to apply for a venue in Edinburgh, and that meant being able to describe a show that they had not yet written.
Moss: We were like, it could be called “Six,” but “Six” felt too easy and obvious. It must be more difficult — that can’t be the title.
Marlow: We were trying to be clever, or punny, or trying to sound too much like a girl group. “Sixth Harmony” was one of them — that’s just playing on Fifth Harmony — or there was “Little Six,” playing on Little Mix.
Moss: We knew that in the Fringe you get a very small slot in the brochure, and you kind of want the title to tell people what it is. So we ended up with it actually being called “Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live!” It was really making people in Edinburgh, who have a totally saturated market, understand what it is in a glance. It does the job.
Marlow: Also, one word titles are striking and cool. “Evita”! “Pippin”! “Hamilton”! “Six”!
They wrote the show in short bursts — a weekend at Marlow’s family house, an afternoon in a college room.
Moss: We decided that we were going to write this little manifesto. It was so earnest. All these points about how we were trying to show that women could tell stories onstage and be funny without men, and how there were parallels between the female experience of 500 years ago and the experience of people today.
But they were also determined to make it silly and entertaining, and found a pop-world inspiration for their structure and form: a 2011 video album by Beyoncé called “Live at Roseland: Elements of 4,” that weaves storytelling and concert performance. On that first day of writing, they watched the video together.
Marlow: When we started writing, I was like, “I think the songs should sound like stand-alone pop songs in their own right and they shouldn’t have Tudor references,” because I wanted to go to the Fringe with this set of pop songs that I could show people afterward. But by the end of Day 1 …
Moss: I was like, I think we should make jokes about pheasant. So for our first run in Edinburgh, half of the songs were quite generic, and half were like, “The pope said nope!”
Craft the Characters
The main characters were obvious: the six wives.
But there were other ideas, too, including Hans Holbein the Younger, a prominent painter whose portrait of Anne of Cleves plays a key role in her history (Henry supposedly felt that she was less attractive in real life; or, as Cleves sings in the show, “You said that I tricked ya/‘Cause I didn’t look like my profile picture.”)
Moss: Quite early on, we were like, let’s not have Henry there, because the whole point was them being like, “We’re taking back the microphone and telling our side of things.” But we thought Hans Holbein was a hilarious idea for a character, so he was in the mix.
Marlow: We also had a thought that the various children were going to be the backing vocalists. But then we just decided, wouldn’t it be cool if it was just the queens as the girl group, and that was the cast.
Moss: We had to write something, so we made decisions.
Marlow: Now, if we make a decision, it’s like “Oh, my God! This is going to affect billions of pounds and lives and jobs!” But then it was like, “A or B? It doesn’t matter, ‘cause no one’s going to care anyway.”
Once they settled on the dramatis personae, they had to give character to the characters. What would the wives look and sound like?
Each has her own “queenspirations” — pop stars whose sartorial and vocal stylings were primary influences. Catherine of Aragon is modeled after Beyoncé and wears gold because she was the longest-serving queen; Anne Boleyn, whose space buns signal her character’s roots in Miley Cyrus, wears green as a nod to the legend that Henry VIII wrote “Greensleeves” for her.
Moss: When we did our first preview ever, they all looked a little bit like tribute queens — Aragon looked a little too Beyoncé, and Cleves looked a bit too Nicki Minaj. We’ve refined it now.
There is symbolism everywhere: Jane Seymour has a black and white patterned corset suggesting half-timbered houses; Boleyn and Katherine Howard wear chokers as tokens of their beheadings.
The lyrics, and even the choreography, advance a reconsideration of the wives’ reputations: For example, Howard, who was criticized for early sexual activity and executed for adultery, is presented as a victim of abuse and objectification by the men in her life.
Put On a Show
“Six” was one of 3,398 shows at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe — a citywide event that claims to be the world’s largest arts festival.
Marlow and Moss had tapped a classmate, Jamie Armitage, to direct, and had cast a group of students — plus Marlow’s little sister, Annabel, as Boleyn. They were still writing during rehearsals; meanwhile, to get attention, the cast went out “flyering” — promoting the show on the streets of the Scottish capital.
Marlow: All the queens were in costume, and they had a huge banner: “Come see the six wives as a girl group!” And then by Show 4 or5, there were all these people around, and it was sold out. I showed up at the venue, and there was a queue of people trying to get tickets.
The show didn’t win any of the festival’s big awards, and Moss still grimaces when recounting “the most unbelievably bad, clunky segues, and the exposition,” but it did get some encouraging early reviews.
“A brazen, glamorous and truly unforgettable history lesson,” declared Broadway Baby, a British performing arts site. “A script so quick-witted poor Henry would turn in his grave,” said Musical Theater Review.
And word of mouth was strong. The venue’s capacity was raised, from about 80 to 115, and influential figures began to turn up and ask about securing rights.
Marlow: All these people were like, “Oh, let’s go for coffee, here’s my card.” It was exciting and thrilling but also stressful.
He called a family friend, the composer George Stiles, who had once been in a band with his father. Stiles offered a piece of key advice: “Don’t sign anything.”
The road from Edinburgh to Broadway was unplanned and unusually speedy for an industry in which musicals with original scores often take years to develop.
A few months after the Fringe festival, in the fall of 2017, Marlow and Moss brought the show back to campus. That run drew more commercial interest — Stiles urged the West End producer Kenny Wax to come see it in Cambridge; Wax and Stiles then partnered with Wendy and Andy Barnes, who had seen it in Edinburgh, to give the show a for-profit life.
Then came a tough chapter: Wax suggested a four-night showcase in London. Marlow and Moss agreed, and set about hiring professional actors, but handled the communication with the student performers poorly, a step they still regret.
Moss: It was really hard, particularly because everyone in the original cast was our friend.
Marlow: We hadn’t really considered what us taking our work ahead would mean for people who had been involved.
They were rueful, but also pledged to do better. And the showcase led to a strategic decision that proved enormously important: They recorded the score, and released it, before the show began its commercial life.
That “Six” album has now been streamed more than 100 million times via Apple and Spotify. The catchy melodies and forward feminism have intersected perfectly with the TikTok moment — users making short-form videos to music clips — meaning that a large audience (the “Queendom”) has discovered the songs online, fueling interest in the stage productions.
At this year’s BroadwayCon — an annual gathering of theater fans — “Six” was omnipresent even though it had yet to play a single performance in New York; attendees, some cosplaying, flocked to sessions where they could learn the choreography, sing along with the cast and hear from Moss and Marlow themselves.
Commercial productions — now with Moss as co-director alongside Armitage — began in 2018 with a tour of Britain. That became a sit-down production in London, soon joined by another British tour and a touring company in Australia and New Zealand.
Among those who saw the show in Edinburgh was Richard Ambrose, who heads entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Lines. He made a bid to bring the production to his ships — he liked the pop sound and the empowerment message — and, in an unusual step, the producers agreed.
The full show (only change: the queens now have the option of wearing flat shoes when performing during rough seas) is now running on two Norwegian ships and will open on a third this fall.
Marlow: It’s weird seeing it on a cruise ship, because people haven’t paid to go see that performance — they’ve paid to be on a cruise that the show’s on. So halfway through “Heart of Stone” they’ll be like, “Oh! My dinner reservation!” and get up and leave. What?
Then came North America, with the British team joined by an experienced Broadway producer, Kevin McCollum. The show built buzz, and developed its cast, with initial runs at nonprofit theaters in Chicago, Boston, Edmonton and St. Paul before settling onto West 47th Street; a second North American production is slated to open in Chicago this summer.
Broadway being Broadway, there are some new bells and whistles — the costumes have been rebuilt, with more detailing and more flexible materials; the set is similarly polished, with more nods to Tudor architecture and Renaissance ornamentation; and there are a few new touches, including an oversized throne and a crowd-pleasing costume reveal that had been implied but never fully realized in previous productions.
Moss: We early on decided we wanted to hold our nerve, rather than be like, ”Oh, it’s Broadway so we have to put new stuff in it.” Things that we always wanted or intended, but hadn’t got exactly right, we would focus in on.
There are no sure bets on Broadway, but this one is as close as they come: It was capitalized for just $5 million and, with its small cast and four-piece onstage band, has low running costs for a Broadway musical. Marlow and Moss, now practiced at openings, are exuberant.
Moss: Since October, we’ve had a cast change in London, the U.K. tour opening in November, a cruise ship opening in December, and Sydney opened. So my brain is like, this is normal. But, at the same, time, why can’t I concentrate? Oh, because I’m opening a Broadway show!
Hear a Song from “Six” Take Shape
Marlow and Moss used voice notes to record their songwriting ideas. Here, from early 2017, is Marlow singing a first attempt at “No Way,” Catherine of Aragon’s big number.
In late 2017, after a student production in Edinburgh, Marlow and Moss revised “No Way” for a professional showcase in London. The song now incorporated elements of Catherine’s dramatic Blackfriars speech, which she defiantly delivered in 1529 in an unsuccessful attempt to save her marriage.
And here is the final version of the song, as sung by Renée Lamb on a 2018 studio album.