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The viral musical you’ve probably never heard of

When it opened in the UK in 2017, SIX The Musical enchanted a new generation of musical theatre fans with its contemporary pop homages and progressive take on Tudor history. Now, having just debuted on Broadway, the viral musical has its sights set on a wider audience.

Cassie Tongue

Only two musicals have more than 220 million streams on Spotify, joining the likes of Billie Eilish, BTS, Harry Styles, and the Weeknd.

One is Hamilton, the cultural juggernaut by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The other is SIX The Musical, the bright and bold exploration of the wives of King Henry VIII.

Plenty of stories have been told about the wives of King Henry VIII, largely by men and without much agency bestowed upon the women themselves. They are mostly remembered salaciously – as objects of desire, or for being executed or otherwise discarded for displeasing the King. 

SIX, as a musical, re-investigates each of those relationships through a contemporary perspective to consider the women’s side of the story and celebrate their strength and tenacity at a time that was extraordinarily unkind to women.

But when creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss wrote the show, they were just Cambridge students who wanted to make a splash at the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Basing their work on historical figures, rather than creating unknown characters, seemed like a great place to start.

“The retelling of historical stories has been a trend in musicals since the beginning of musicals,” Marlow says. “There’s always been an interest in retelling those narratives, but this is about reclaiming those stories.”

Marlow was inspired by Hamilton’s take on an essential American story as told by underrepresented voices to make a show for women and non-binary actors who didn’t have to share the spotlight – or their punchlines – with men.

“The conversations I was having with Lucy [Moss] and our friends at the time were all about representation in theatre, and how we should make a musical that really showcased women’s talents in a way that men always had been.

“There’s always been a lack of good parts for women in musical theatre, because of who is in charge of telling the stories and who is writing the stories.”

Marlow and Moss also wanted their cast to reflect the world by ensuring it didn’t fall into the musical theatre trap of treating whiteness as the default.

“When you open up the auditions and encourage diversity in the audition rooms,” says Marlow, “and then you look for the best people – naturally it is a diverse result.”

Through fleshing out the concept of SIX for the Fringe, and later developing it to play bigger stages like the West End, Broadway, and the Sydney Opera House, Marlow and Moss became passionate about the six wives, and about putting their stories back where they belonged. 

“These six women are reclaiming the narrative for themselves not through a patriarchal lens but a revisionist feminist lens – taking their space,” Marlow says. 

In the light-hearted style of a musical performance competition, SIX challenges each ex-wife, as they’re called in the show, to share their sides of the story. Each number is filled with love, loss, pride, anger, and guilt. Marlow and Moss rely on musical shorthand, witticisms and modern references to give us insight into their complicated inner lives and fraught ends.

We’re used to bringing history alive through music in this way.

For many Australians, this slice of history has always been musical. There are the ice cream trucks that play Greensleeves, the traditional English ballad often associated with Anne Boleyn, and we play host to the perpetual tours of British band Herman’s Hermits, whose cheesy proto-punk track ‘I’m Henry VIII, I am’ endures as a novelty hit and a drinking song.

Until SIX.

The songs of SIX reflect the values of a new generation, who look at this once tragic story as a catchcry for autonomy and a sense of long-denied validation.

SIX has new generations of audiences experiencing the reinvention of form.

But Ebony Bott, Head of Contemporary Performance at the Sydney House, suggests that there’s more to it than just the story, pointing out that great musical theatre has always responded to and embraced trends in commercial music.

SIX has new generations of audiences experiencing the reinvention of form. Across the years, we’ve seen so many musicals based on historical stories, and even looking at the stories of women – like Evita [as an example of] that more traditional form.’

“But what you also see across the years is how musical theatre responds to different music. Rock operas – like Jesus Christ Superstar and Hedwig [and the Angry Inch] - responded to the music of its time and show different ways that music and story fuse.”

SIX’s extraordinarily successful cast recording sounds less like contemporary Broadway and more like commercial pop albums you might hear on the ARIA charts.

Marlow says that sound, with tight girl-group harmonies and towering solo vocals, is thanks to orchestrator Tom Curran and all based on specific references – Beyoncé, Lily Allen, Adele, Rihanna, and Britney Spears. “It’s a pop genre pastiche of all the divas of the 2010s.”

“We really tried to recreate that contemporary pop sound because the show is a pop concert, and these are pop star characters.”

Bott points out that these are also fairytale characters for the modern age.

“There’s a reason why there’s a royal on the Newsweeks and the Hello Magazines every day. Everyone loves a royal. Everyone loves pop music.”

Because Marlow and Moss created a show they wanted to see, Marlow isn’t surprised by SIX’s enormous fanbase of young women and queer people, students and music lovers like themselves.

But it’s the way the show connects with audience members outside of his own experience that humbles Marlow.

“There was an older woman watching SIX at the Arts Theatre in London and ended up talking to [Lucy] after the show. This woman said the reason she loved SIX was because she felt seen.”

“We really wanted to make these queens hilarious and powerful and cracking jokes and being ridiculous but also being multifaceted. To hear someone of that age felt seen by this choice and felt the need to tell us – that’s such a lovely thing.”

Bott says that while the show’s Queendom – the nickname for SIX’s worldwide collective of fans – and its strong presence on TikTok is amazing, she sees a much more diverse group of fans in the show’s audiences.

And I think we could all do with a bit of charge right now, a little electricity firing through our veins – it’s unifying.

“When I first saw SIX in the UK, I was surrounded by young people or young teens, but I was also surrounded by women on Hens’ Nights and in groups.

“It's been an amazing vehicle to get young people into the theatre, no question. But the ticket buyers aren't just mothers of teenagers. They are mothers and women having a night out with their friends. One member of the Queendom is a guy who said he came 14 times to see SIX in Sydney.”

Marlow gained a new appreciation for the actors who play the Queens – and the audiences who see the show – when stepping in to play Catherine Parr for two performances in London in 2019 due to cast illness.

“It gave me an even more profound respect for the performers and how difficult it is to perform – I was like, ‘oh my god, these jokes are really difficult to land’ – and we wrote them!”

“And it made me realise how talented all the Catherine Parrs and all the Queens across the world are at telling that story in a way that really connects with audiences.”

“The performers navigate and guide the audience through these tone shifts towards the end of the show are so talented – it’s a really unbelievable skill.”

Bott says those tone shifts are critical to the end result, where audiences rise to their feet in regular standing ovations, and often end up chatting to the people around them: “You walk out of SIX feeling charged,” Bott says.

“And I think we could all do with a bit of charge right now, a little electricity firing through our veins  - it’s unifying.”

Streamread & listen to more at the Opera House