Topping the charts and ruling the box office right now is Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s SIX, the pop-concert musical about the trials and tribulations of the six wives of Henry VIII. The show debuted in the West End in 2019 and on Broadway in 2020, and is still running at both locations. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for the North American tour and got to see these queens live in concert at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco!

SIX is a short musical, clocking in at around an hour and a half, during which the six wives of Henry VIII are decked out in full punk-rock regalia for a concert and a competition: each queen will tell her story and the one who has had the worst experience with Henry will become the lead singer of their band. Marlow and Moss wrote SIX while they were students at Cambridge University for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Now, they are the winners of the 2022 Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for Theatre. Costume designer Gabriella Slade also won the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Musical, and the show has received numerous other accolades.

The Orpheum is one of my favourite venues for musical theatre because of its grandiose and slightly foreboding atmosphere–the perfect setting for the queens to make their grand entrance. It first opened in 1926 and was named a San Francisco Landmark in 1977. An essential stop for any major musical touring through North America, it seats 2,200 people and has put on shows such as Hamilton, Mamma Mia!, and Wicked as well as hosting the Grateful Dead for several performances in 1976. As a bonus, there are plenty of amazing restaurants within walking distance, such as Brenda’s French Soul Food, Momo’s, and Birdsong.

SIX was an absolute blast with riveting music, plenty of laughs, and girl power for the ages, but there was also some intense research and clever design going on behind the scenes. According to the Evening Standard, “for Moss, a history graduate, the show was a chance not only to reassess the reputations of Henry’s wives but to set the record straight.” Elements of modern singers are mixed into the songs which become ways for each woman to tell “her-story” and reframe the narrative of her life. In the conceptualization of the characters, each queen was inspired by certain pop stars—for Catherine of Aragon it was Beyoncé and Shakira, for Anne Boleyn, Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, and for my personal favourite Katherine Howard: Ariana Grande and Britney Spears (according to the Orpheum’s program). The production also grounds the empowerment of the queens in historical fact—a biography of each is included in the program, historical references and quotes are mixed into the lyrics and script, and Slade incorporates elements of period clothing in the costume design.

The show opens with some dramatic drums, lights, and fog before the queens come out to warm up the audience and introduce their “ladies-in-waiting”—the onstage band members who complete the entirely female and non-binary cast. The over-the-top bling is fitting for royalty and the metatextual script has them interacting with the audience throughout and not denying the subtle absurdity of the concept—when one of the other queens, confused, asks Anne Boleyn, “So you died?” Anne only responds with a “Yes,” not seeing the problem. Yes, all these women are dead. Yes, they are on stage performing right now. Don’t read too much into it. After an hour or so of great tunes, the queens, at Catherine Parr’s instigation, decide that the competition isn’t worthwhile since it only ascribes them value through their relationship with Henry, so they celebrate their own individuality in the last song.

SIX connects verifiable history with modern aesthetics and therefore modern messages of women’s empowerment. You think these women’s lives are irrelevant? When “K Howard” relates the story of how she was only employed by a man so he could seduce her, she explains to the audience that “it was a different time,” to some amusement. Only a few years before Marlow and Moss wrote their musical, Hamilton reclaimed history by recounting “a story about America then, told by America now,” focusing on the role of immigrants and people of colour in American history and infusing the soundtrack with rap and hip-hop. SIX does something similar on a smaller scale—mainly focusing on the lives of these six women—but still promoting a message which applies to everyone. The show’s website also includes a “Queen of the Week” page and invites fans to nominate someone who is making a difference in the world to be featured.

SIX is an ironically upbeat affirmation of women’s autonomy—and a great history lesson for this American girl who couldn’t remember anything past wife #3. I highly recommend going to see it in London—or when it is at New Theatre Oxford at the beginning of June!