Written by Naomi Wallace
There is no doubt that Six the Musical has been a smash hit ever since it first graced audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2017. The production has brought the six wives of Henry VIII to stages from the West End to Broadway, amassing huge crowds of fans across the globe. Though I am certainly not qualified to provide a review of the show from a critical theatrical perspective, I am a history student with a specific focus on sixteenth-century England and have strong thoughts on the historical content in Six. This is the lens through which this article will evaluate the musical, demonstrating its achievements and shortcomings in bringing the infamous period of history to the stage.
For those unfamiliar with the show’s setup, the premise is that the six wives of Henry VIII, all members of a girl group, compete to decide who suffered the worst treated from him. It is a direct callout of the popular tendency to pit these women against one another, and the show concludes by highlighting how unproductive this is. There are a couple of moments where it toes the line – for example, I find it very distasteful when two of the women bicker over the number of miscarriages they had – but it does effectively challenge the unnecessary comparison of six women who are only grouped together by a shared spouse. As an overall message, it is not one that I can fault.
The opening number, “Ex-Wives”, is fine. It begins with the infamous rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died” and is filled with amusing quips about the stereotypes associated with the women – “remember us from your GCSEs?”, they ask at one point. Each wife introduces herself with the basic facts we probably already know, and the song claims that the ensuing numbers will challenge these familiar associations and offer new perspectives – a “histo-remix”, if you will. Maybe it is a little cheesy, but this does seem like a noble feat. Had the show actually done what it claimed it would, it could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, virtually none of the individual songs achieve this. Most of them either offer the same story we’ve always heard, and one is simply a grotesque misrepresentation.
Catherine of Aragon’s song, “No Way”, is a nice idea. The song is based on the speech Catherine gave at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, where she knelt at Henry’s feet and defended the legitimacy of her marriage. This context is not necessarily clear without an existing level of knowledge, but the song does a good job of demonstrating that Catherine did not lie down and accept her annulment. In fact, it was her staunch resistance to it more than anything that led to such drastic measures being taken by Henry VIII to end the marriage. It is nothing revolutionary, but I do like that “No Way” draws attention to Catherine’s agency by challenging the presentation of her as a docile, victimised wife.
Unfortunately, I have virtually nothing positive to say about the disaster that is “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” Anne Boleyn is arguably already the most misunderstood of the six wives, still popularly recognised as a scheming seductress and as an adulterer. I cannot possibly understand the thought process behind this song. While it does not subscribe to these negative stereotypes, it instead presents Anne as an unintelligent bimbo. This could not be further from the truth. Almost every line can be unpicked and deconstructed for its inaccuracy; some of the worst offenders are “politics? Not my thing” (Anne was an astute political thinker), and “maybe I’ll flirt with a guy or three” (the adultery allegations were false, and it is insulting they would even imply otherwise). It is because of songs like this that some are led to question the ethics behind portraying historical figures in popular culture in this manner. Yes, Anne Boleyn is long dead, but it posthumously defames her to subvert her character so grotesquely. Six the Musical would be far better if they just cut out “Don’t Lose Ur Head” entirely and replaced it with a new song.
Jane Seymour has long been remembered as the one Henry VIII truly loved, the meek wife who provided him with the son he so desperately wanted. We may have expected Six, in its quest to challenge popular misconceptions, to show us the side to Jane that we never hear about: the one who cunningly played her cards right to become the queen, or perhaps the one who stood up to Henry when he persecuted the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace. But “Heart of Stone” gives us the same old, plain mother, who was only remembered so fondly because she gave birth to a male heir. There’s nothing particularly offensive about it, in fact it is a beautiful song, but it is so… boring. I have very little to say about “Heart of Stone”, except that it is a lazy effort, and just a little disappointing.
“Get Down” is an incredibly fun song that presents Anne of Cleves in a very positive light. It jokes about how Henry VIII called her ugly because she “didn’t look like her profile picture” – a hilarious modern metaphor for the use of portraiture to find suitors in sixteenth-century Europe. Anne also sings about the abundant wealth she gained from her brief marriage to the king and celebrates her life as a single woman. I really like this song; it is light-hearted, amusing, and puts a positive spin on the ordeal Anne of Cleves faced with Henry VIII. Though she is perhaps the least controversial of the wives, I am still impressed by how empowering “Get Down” is and hope that it leaves people with a newfound respect for the German princess who is too often remembered as “the ugly one”.
I have been somewhat harsh towards many of the previous numbers, so it is with high praise that I consider Katheryn Howard’s song “All You Wanna Do” to be truly excellent. This song does exactly what the show promises, turning the stereotype of Katheryn as a silly, promiscuous girl upside down and raising awareness of her victimhood. It is heart-breaking to watch as Katheryn slowly recounts the abuse she has faced and realises that every man she finds herself in the company of sexualises her just like the rest. If Six wants to challenge misconceptions, it hits the nail on the head with “All You Wanna Do”. I am reassured that audiences will leave with a new perspective on Katheryn Howard and the trauma she suffered. Six gets my full support with this one.
Katherine Parr asks in her song why she should have to sing about her romantic relationships rather than her achievements, such as publishing books and patronising female education. So why, then, does the first half of “I Don’t Need Your Love” focus entirely on how her marriage to Henry VIII stood in the way of her relationship with Thomas Seymour? We only briefly get to hear about all Katherine did in her life, as an active religious reformer and writer, which seems to undermine the purpose of the song. I do appreciate that they chose to highlight this side to the wife that survived, as it is something that many will be unaware of before watching the show; I just wish there was more of it. “I Don’t Need Your Love” is certainly not the worst of the lot, but it doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do, which seems to be the overarching issue with the show as a whole.
The final number, “Six”, sees each queen rewrite her story completely, imagining how things may have played out for them if they had had the agency to control their lives. It is fictional, but I appreciate the idea, and wish that the rest of the show was more reminiscent of this last song. The reminder that each woman is “one of a kind” and cannot be categorised is a vital message with which I completely agree. All too often these women are reduced to a childish rhyme, and it is encouraging that attempts are being made to emphasise their individuality.
Despite my many criticisms, I do enjoy Six the Musical. I have seen it twice and will again this May. It is just a shame that the show did not get a thorough rework after its debut at the Fringe, with the input of scholars of the period before it shot to fame on stages all over the world. It remains virtually unchanged from its initial run. With considerable adjustments, Six could have been a triumph in feminist retellings of history and an extremely positive contribution to pop culture representations of the wives of Henry VIII. But as a staunch defender of Anne Boleyn in particular, given the disservice they do to her character, I cannot give the show my historical blessing. It is my guilty pleasure, but from a scholarly perspective, there are issues I cannot look past. I would still recommend Six the Musical in terms of entertainment but encourage caution when it comes to the historical content it puts forward.