Reclaiming women’s historical narratives in “SIX”

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s “SIX” places the wives of England’s notorious King Henry VIII in a brilliant, tongue-in-cheek pop musical. With its strong heroines, unforgettable musical numbers and wealth of historical details, it has quickly become a smash hit on Broadway and a fan favorite. 

Beneath its glittering surface, “SIX” is an ode to female power in many forms. All six of its protagonists get one solo, in which they channel their unique personalities as they tell the stories of how they ended up married to Henry. The juxtaposition of Renaissance figures and modern slang turns these historical women into entertaining, relatable characters for a 21st-century audience. “SIX” has also been praised for its racially diverse and size-inclusive casting, making it an empowering musical for the actresses as well as the historical figures it portrays. 

Many historical accounts of Henry VIII’s wives focus on Henry’s cruelty and ruthless pursuit of an heir, but “SIX” is dedicated to the memory of the women who suffered at his hands. While Henry’s actions do drive the plot, Henry himself never appears in the musical, allowing the women to control the narrative. 

The opening number playfully introduces the six queens: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr. They are presented as members of a pop band, and the performance is framed as a competition for the position of the band’s lead singer. Each queen tries to prove that she is most deserving of the position by performing a song about the suffering she experienced as Henry’s wife. 

Catherine of Aragon was a loyal wife and queen to Henry for 24 years before he annulled their marriage and exiled her to a convent in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Her solo, “No Way,” channels her rage at his infidelity in a regal performance that incorporates inspiration from Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Hudson. While her stubborn spirit does not prevent the divorce, she is not a passive victim; her anger demonstrates that she knows her worth and refuses to let Henry’s rejection shape her perception of herself. 

Anne Boleyn, whom Henry married following his separation from Catherine of Aragon, offers her side of the story in the cheekily titled solo “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” The musical initially portrays Anne as ditzy, bawdy and oblivious to other people’s feelings as she moves to court and starts her affair with Henry, but this characterization is merely mocking how history vilified Anne as an adulteress. Furthermore, the upbeat, sarcastic song quickly spirals into a terrifying narrative: Henry begins cheating on Anne after they get married, then beheads her for suspected adultery. 

Following Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour in order to produce a son, but she died following childbirth. Although many historians portray Jane as meek and one-dimensional, “SIX” suggests that Jane merely assumes a demure demeanor to avoid Henry’s wrath. While she cares deeply for Henry, she acknowledges that he only loved her because she gave him an heir. Her emotional ballad, “Heart of Stone,” explores the complexities of her feelings towards him and channels her quiet, breathtaking inner strength. 

Next, the queens gather to sing “Haus of Holbein,” a satire on beauty standards. With jokes about nine-inch corseted waists and makeup containing lead poison, they poke fun at society’s obsession with beauty, setting the stage for Anna of Cleves’s story. 

Henry initially agreed to marry Anna after seeing her portrait, but when he met her in person, he demanded a divorce and exiled her to a palace in Richmond, claiming that she was not as beautiful as her portrait. Anna, however, is far from heartbroken – she enjoys being a wealthy, independent woman and brags about her comfortable lifestyle in her sassy solo “Get Down.” While historians often pity Anna for being rejected based on her appearance, her unbothered response suggests that beauty is overrated and independence is far more desirable. 

Like Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard is initially characterized as a vain, foolish young woman whom Henry executed for her perceived promiscuity. However, her childlike mannerisms build an increasingly uncomfortable tone as she begins telling her story. Although historians often framed her as an adulterous seductress, her solo “All You Wanna Do” reveals that many of her alleged liaisons actually involved grooming and sexual abuse. The deceptively upbeat song demands historical justice for Katherine’s legacy and validates her trauma. 

Catherine Parr, the final wife, accepted Henry’s proposal out of obligation and stayed with him until his death. In her solo, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” she questions why all six queens are seen only as Henry’s wives rather than independent historical figures with their own unique stories and accomplishments. Parr’s revelation inspires the other queens, and they begin imagining the lives they could have lived if they had never married Henry. They abandon the idea of the contest for lead singer and unite as a single band, and the power of their sisterhood helps them break free from patriarchal historical narratives. 

While “SIX” does explore the stories of long-suffering historical women, it avoids exploiting their pain for entertainment. It approaches each queen’s story through a feminist lens, aiming to educate the audience about each woman’s legacy rather than her role in relation to Henry. It stays true to historical facts but rejects common problematic narratives and invites the audience to see each queen’s story through a more progressive, empowering perspective.