History is as much about the present as it is the past, with the current moment often having a profound effect on how we perceive all the ones that came before it. This is certainly the case in the theater, where facts have a tendency to give way to more pressing contemporary considerations, though hopefully there is still some essential fealty to the truth. Of course, with his own history plays, Shakespeare frequently toed the Tudor line, for example, by unambiguously remembering Richard III as a child-murdering usurper. Fairly or not, the Duke of Gloucester is now a villain for all eternity, so history is about the future, too.
Another of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry VIII (co-written by John Fletcher), is largely considered one of the Bard’s lesser works. In a brazen example of historical elision, it culminates with the birth of Elizabeth I, conveniently sidestepping the brutal fate of the Tudor queen’s mother at the hands of her titular father. By contrast, Anne Boleyn’s infamous death, and Henry VIII’s other matrimonial atrocities, take center stage in Six: The Musical, a glib extravaganza that transforms the pitiable wives of the male-heir-chasing monarch into a queens-of-pop sextet tunefully vying against each other for wronged-woman supremacy.
More concert than musical, the 80-minute show’s libretto adds little to its cast album, with the lyrics of each queen’s autobiographical song also pruning their individual histories to a point even a Wikipedia writer might consider reductive. The English nursery rhyme “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” which the women recite at the beginning of the sing-off, pretty much sums up writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s level of interest in the lives of Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), Katherine Howard (understudy Courtney Mack in the performance I saw), and Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele). In between the songs, the women disparage one another’s suffering, all in an attempt to snipe their way to the grand prize: leader of the group and, with it, the audience’s adulation.
Indeed, as the queens take their respective turns in the spotlight, spectacle does overwhelm decorum, as the actors stunningly evoke the vocal stylings and stage presences of Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, and a few others I probably didn’t catch. Well aided by a thumpingly versatile backup band conducted by Julia Schade, Emma Bailey’s cheekily English-Gothic-inspired set, Tim Deiling’s candy-colored lighting, Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s music-video-referencing choreography, and Gabriella Slade’s wildly inventive costumes that might best be described as Elizabethan futurism, it becomes quickly obvious that much of the audience would like to shed their cramped seats for a dance floor. Given the last nineteen months, that’s absolutely understandable.
But there still is a lingering discomfort that hangs over the proceedings, preventing one from completely cutting loose, at least in your own mind. It’s most sharply felt when Jane Seymour, apparently the king’s true love (whatever the heck that means to a wife killer), quavers the mawkish torch song “Heart of Stone” immediately after a bubbly confection from Anne Boleyn about having her head chopped off. The juxtaposition is played for laughs, but what’s the joke?
It’s jarring enough to make you wonder whether the deceptiveness of Six: The Musical ends after the colon. Perhaps there’s something deeper happening here. Maybe the whole production is a clever sendup of televised singing competitions that value painful revelations over real talent, and maybe Moss and Marlow have mixed this deservedly biting cultural commentary with a pungent reminder about how a woman’s advancement in society often depends on her willingness to tear other women down. If that is what’s going on, then, by all means, get up and dance.
Really, feel free, because with about twenty minutes left in the show, Catherine Parr herself, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives to make it to “death do you part” without, you know, being the person to actually die, confirms that it’s all been a massive fake out. Every miscarriage, beheading, and other spousal abuse joke made by a woman at another woman’s expense was meant to build up to an eleven o’clock number about female empowerment. The major problem with this about-face declaration is that everything said or sung before it doesn’t feel changed, making it come off as either a huge structural misstep or completely insincere.
In general, good satire doesn’t have to explicitly state its intentions. If people don’t understand it right away, then maybe it was too subtle or the audience just needs some reflecting time to catch up to the meaning. In the most generous negative interpretation of Six: The Musical, Moss and Marlow, the former having directed the show with Jamie Armitage, simply didn’t have faith in the audience to catch up. Or, more likely, they failed to heed the warning Thomas Cromwell, who went from Henry VIII’s enabling inner circle to his chopping block, once received from a fellow nobleman: “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
Six: The Musical (open run)
Kenny Wax, Wendy & Andy Barnes, George Stiles and Kevin McCollum in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.sixonbroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission