Six is that rare high-concept show that actually pays off the promise of its concept. The pitch of “the six wives of Henry VIII but they’re also the Spice Girls” is one that’s simultaneously compelling and fraught with ways to irreparably screw it up.
That the show works at all is a marvel; that it works as well as it does just compounds that improbability.
Shows that trade on deliberate anachronism often create tone problems for themselves, particularly in dealing with historical subjects. Six would have been insufferable if it had just substituted nineties nostalgia for sixteenth-century nostalgia, but it casually drops slang and aesthetics from all three of the most recent decades, creating a weird melange in which a blatant Spice Girls shout-out can sit next to such un-nineties artifacts as texting abbreviations or references to Tinder.
Instead of creating a simple anachronism, this creates a sense of atemporality; we – or at least the millennials among us – stop thinking about the setting in terms of a specific decade and slip smoothly into thinking of it as just “modernity.” And given the contrast in mores that the show works very hard to set up, that deliberate ambiguity is crucial.
In a similar way, the diversity of direct musical influences helps to prevent the show from stagnating. The Broadway program actually gives the game away by listing the stylistic influences for each song under the “Queenspiration” sections of the character profiles, but in most of those cases it would have been obvious anyway. This, too, could easily have gone terribly wrong but doesn’t; the subjects of pastiche tend only to be really blatant when the identification adds resonance to the story of the specific woman whose story is being told.
The best example of this is Catherine Howard’s song, where pastiching a particular artist draws a strong parallel between the treatment of Howard by the culture of her time and the treatment of that artist by the culture of hers (and, definitionally, ours).
I will not spoil anything about this song – though I expect to examine it in-depth at some point after more people have had the chance to experience the show – but I will say that it is just damn good musical theater writing, and by far the best song in an already strong score.
More than that, though, it is a song just as good as – and perhaps better than – the song catalog of the artist it is pastiching. There’s a lot of pop-inflected music on Broadway, but disappointingly rarely do we see a score that exists as excellent pop music while also functioning as musical theater storytelling. Six is that rare exception. The songs are catchy, eclectic, fun, and pure pop from beginning to end. At least four of the tunes have been stuck in my head on rotation in just about equal measure since I saw the show, which is more than I can say for all but a tiny handful of pop songs that have actually charted over the previous five years.
More than that, though, this stylistic accomplishment both reinforces and is reinforced by the pseudo-concert framing device. Six is hardly the first musical to use this basic conceit (Altar Boyz used a similar device, albeit for farce), nor is it the first to take a meta-fictional approach to that conceit (Passing Strange still stands as a towering accomplishment in that regard), but it is the first to do either of these things in the particular way that it does. Using the inherent artifice of a pop concert as a vector for empowering historical revisionism is an approach that is both genuinely novel and an unexpectedly brilliant use of the genre that it has taken as its sandbox.
This is all the more surprising given how literate and well-informed the libretto is. Even the throwaway puns evince an impressive command of the historical subject matter, and the fact that they are throwaways is a hint to how songwriters Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss manage to reconcile that literacy with the more straightforward pop aesthetic they are aiming for.
To wit, you do not need to have even a solid layman’s knowledge of sixteenth-century English royal court intrigue in order to enjoy Six; all the information that you need is given to you in the lyrics. If you come to the theater with background knowledge knowledge, the experience will be substantially richer, but it is by no means a prerequisite for complete enjoyment of the experience.
Part of that enjoyability, of course, is a matter of efficiency. Six is an incredibly lean show, running an hour and a half with no intermission, and each of its nine songs does exactly what it needs to do and then promptly makes way for the next one. The best word for it is one that I wish had more common currency: revusical. It presents itself as effectively a revue but a story does ultimately emerge, and with it a theme.
The final thing that I found improbable about how well this show works is the fact that while I had twigged to where the story was going thematically by the end of the opening number, I was still totally satisfied when it got there. This is one of the more wonderful but – equally – frustrating aspects of Six; so much of what works about it is down to simply carrying out its ideas with intelligence and assurance rather than some easily-definable secret sauce.
For one final example, let’s look at the frequent meta-humor. There are lots of soft fourth-wall breaks and moments of deliberate bathos in the show – so often the hallmark of the obnoxiously self-impressed – but Six steers clear of that potential pitfall simply by consistently demonstrating both that it is perfectly able to construct a joke outside of that format and that it is willing to be unabashedly sentimental when it feels the moment is earned.
More than that, the final number of the show uses a meta-fictional conceit not for humor, but for a potent cocktail of poignancy and uplift. Where meta-fiction in other shows so often comes off as evasion, Six uses it to attack its story more directly.
All of this is to say that if there’s anything that can definitively be taken from Six going forward, it’s that making a smart and meticulously written show is not even slightly inconsistent with making one that’s a total blast. Both those who excuse shallow spectacles on the basis of fun and those who argue that tedium is the sole province of true art would do well to see this musical.
At the bare minimum, a musical that can both critique a King’s biblical interpretation and make a pun as shameless as “Live In Consort” in the same evening is – to my mind – already a masterpiece.