We’ve all heard of the six wives of Henry VIII – their enduring fame ensured by the passing parade of their marriages to their redoubtable, gouty Tudor spouse. There’s even a famous rhyme that British children use to remember their respective fates: “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.”
But enough is enough. They’ve had it with only being famous because of that. So here they are live, ready to join forces as a pop group; a kind of royal Spice Girls. But who will be the lead singer? It’s decided that whoever had the worst or unhappiest time as Henry’s Queen will win, so they each unleash a song to state their case as they vie to rule the roost.
The cast of SIX The Musical. Photograph © James D. Morgan
SIX The Musical has arrived in Australia surrounded by a heady buzz, and on opening night at the Sydney Opera House it was quickly clear why it has been so embraced by audiences in the UK, the US and Canada. It’s fierce, it’s sassy, it’s heaps of fun: an exciting, kick-ass show that combines musical theatre and a pop concert in one exhilarating, irresistible blast as it reframes the historical story in a contemporary context.
It began life as a student production for the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society. Co-written by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, undergraduates at Cambridge University, just weeks before they did their finals (she in History, he in English), it was the surprise hit of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe.
The show was quickly picked up by a team of producers (Kenny Wax, Wendy & Andy Barnes and George Stiles) who presented a West End production. From there its fame has spread. A Broadway production opens in March. Now a dazzling Australian production is strutting its stuff at the Sydney Opera House before touring to Melbourne and Adelaide.
Moss and Marlow, who co-wrote the book, lyrics and music, have re-imagined the six queens as pop princesses and given them a selection of terrific pastiche pop songs to sing “with riffs to ruffle your ruffs”. The catchy, punchy score hits you like a tsunami: a tidal wave of invigorating ear worms that has you bopping along, while a couple of gorgeous ballads – Heart of Stone sung by Jane Seymour and I Don’t Need Your Love by Catherine Parr – give you time to catch your breath, and add some emotion to the fun.
Moss and Marlow make no bones about their pop references, acknowledging their “Queenspirations” in the program – Beyoncé, Lily Allen, Adele, Sia, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys among them. The opening number Ex-Wives, which starts with the words to the famous rhyme, also includes a pop-mix of Greensleeves, which Henry VIII is thought to have written for Anne Boleyn, while a fabulously funny number called Haus of Holbein, in which the Renaissance portraiture of Hans Holbein (who painted Anne of Cleves) is compared to a dating app, is a hilarious combination of oompah and German techno. There are also a few shades of the Schuyler Sisters from Hamilton in I Don’t Need Your Love.
The cast of SIX The Musical. Photograph © James D. Morgan
SIX, which runs a tight 80 minutes, is primarily a song-driven extravaganza but there is a linking book with bitchy swipes between the women (“What hurts more than a broken heart?” asks Jane Seymour, “a severed head” retorts Anne Boleyn), some delicious wit (“OK ladies let’s get in Reformation”) and some clever little barbs (“daughters are so easily forgotten”). There are also some lovely Tudor-y nods to things like pheasant and mead.
It’s not desperately deep and meaningful, but there are serious comments woven in as quick asides, and the show certainly makes a point about women being erased from history, about sleazy men, about claiming your identity and about sisterhood. When Catherine Parr’s turn arrives, the writing does start to feel a tad naff and you briefly worry it is going to descend into cheap sentimentality but Moss and Marlow quickly nip that in the bud with a witty observation.
The Australian production is cleverly presented in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House on a raised stage across one corner of the space, with the audience around it. The six performers are joined on stage by a tight four-piece female band (Ladies in Waiting) led by Musical Director Claire Healy on keys.
The set design by Emma Bailey makes inspired use of Tim Deiling’s colourful lighting, with lights in the backwall creating archways, the silhouette of a palace, crosses etc. Gabriella Slade’s deliciously blinged-up, crystal-encrusted costumes combine Tudor shapes (doublet, hose, corset etc) with contemporary pop finery. The outfits sparkle from head to toe, while a bold use of colour differentiates each queen.
Originally co-directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, with sharp, snappy choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, the Australian production has been staged by International Associate Director Grace Taylor and Australian Associate Director Sharon Millerchip, with some input from Moss during a quick visit.
The show has been superbly cast, with fabulous performances all round. Chloé Zuel looks like a pop star and sings with luscious tones as Catherine of Aragon, Kala Gare shines as a straight-talking, minxy Anne Boleyn, Loren Hunter portrays the loyal, loving Jane Seymour and gives a touching rendition of her ballad Heart of Stone, Kiana Daniele is absolutely sensational, displaying knockout comic timing as the jubilant Anne of Cleves, who is more than happy to party without Henry, Courtney Monsma moves from bubble-gum pop to something far darker as the preyed-upon Katherine Howard, with the other women caressing and grabbing her as her song All You Wanna Do unfolds – a very effective bit of staging – and Vidya Makan raises the roof with I Don’t Need Your Love as Catherine Parr.
SIX The Musical is wildly entertaining, joyous and exhilarating, and likely to attract a new, young audience. Apparently the Sydney season is selling fast and over half the tickets have been bought by people who have never been to the Opera House before. Book now before you miss out.
SIX The Musical plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 5, and is part of Sydney Festival; at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, April 23 – June 7; and at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 11 – 28