The six queens of Henry VIII are women best known for the mistreatment they endured at the hands of the maniacal British king. Now the “Six” have been given a stage and mics to sing, rap and wail in a buzzy new musical that previews Friday at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts before going to Broadway in February.
If “Hamilton” cracked open a door with its hip remix of history, “Six” bursts through it.
“The opportunity we have in this show is to allow the women to reclaim their own voices — their own herstory,” said Abby Mueller, the Broadway headliner (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”) who plays Jane Seymour, queen No. 3. “That’s the empowerment — having them speak for themselves.”
Henry VIII ruled England for 38 years — 1509 to 1547 — spilling blood along the way. Most of the history written about the era focuses on him. What we know of his wives is tied to their fate, which has become a tagline for the show — “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, lived.”
“Six” is not some stodgy reclamation project. The sung-through, 75-minute show uses a conceptual framework that we recognize from reality TV to give the queens their platforms. In the piece, the Tudor queens are pop princesses in a girl-power supergroup not unlike Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls or Little Mix. Each queen is competing to be lead singer by telling us about the hard time that she had under Henry.
“These queens might have looked powerless, but they were fierce individuals who shifted the world,” Kevin McCollum, North American producer of the show, said by phone from New York. “And this show has great harmonies, fresh musical vocabulary and music that won’t quit.”
“Six” began three years ago in England, where Cambridge University schoolmates Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss read Alison Weir’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” for a class. Taking a cue from “Hamilton,” they decided to turn a slice of history into a musical and wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show during finals.
“Six” premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 and took off like a rocket.
A cast album was recorded that, in short order, had millions of downloads. One of the musical numbers, “Don’t Lose Ur Head,” became a viral hit on TikTok. In 2018, “Six” moved to the West End, London’s Broadway, where it was nominated for five Olivier Awards. An Australian tour followed, as well as the Broadway-bound North American one.
“We look at the absurdity of what was going on back then — with a king who changed the laws to get divorced, who supercharged the Reformation, and who mistreated women — that jibes with the harmonics of today,” said McCollum, who served for seven years as president and CEO of the Ordway and has championed the early works of figures such as Jonathan Larson (“Rent”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights” and “Hamilton”).
The six queens are, in order of marriage, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. The show seeks to illuminate their lives and personalities.
A badass and a scholar who also was the first female ambassador in European history, Aragon dressed in full armor and went to the front while pregnant. She had seven pregnancies during her nearly 24-year marriage to Henry, all but one ending in tragedy.
The king sought to end their union through annulment because she did not produce a male heir. The pope denied Henry’s wish. The Church of England then broke from Rome with Henry becoming head.
“She was an older queen and the stereotype around her is that she’s not enough,” said Adrianna Hicks, who plays Aragon and joined her castmates for a preshow publicity event in October at the Mall of America. “She was great and smart, but the stigma for her and women is that you’re not good enough.”
Cultured sophisticate Boleyn is probably the most famous of the Queens, partly owing to her fate. She was found guilty of treason because Henry wanted out of the marriage and beheaded.
“Anne Boleyn was labeled a witch — she’s iconic as being bewitching and manipulative,” said Andrea Macasaet, who plays Boleyn. “The king wanted to have her as a mistress but she didn’t want that. He chased her for seven years. ... In the end, it didn’t work out for her and she was shamed for being outgoing and smart. Now I get to showcase her inner light unapologetically.”
Third queen Seymour died 12 days after giving birth to a son who became King Edward VI. Henry is said to have really been broken up over her death.
“Jane was pigeonholed as the boring one, but she saw what happened to the first two girls and wanted to keep her life,” Mueller said. “She was not as flashy as the other queens and vulnerable enough to love Henry.”
Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, was a German royal whose six-month marriage to Henry was more about statecraft than love. The English king sought an alliance with her brother, Duke William of Jülich-Cleves-Berge, head of the protestants in Germany, in case the Catholics invaded.
Henry divorced Cleves on the grounds that their marriage was never consummated, and she got to keep her head.
Cleves was a strong, independent woman long before she knew of Henry, said Brittney Mack, who plays Cleves.
“When she first met him, it was, ‘Whoa, who’s this old man coming at me?’ ” Mack said. “She had no idea who he was. Later, when he doesn’t want her anymore, the story flipped. She’s ugly and unattractive.”
Cleves embodies “the idea that women are disposable, that we’re not smart or what we think is not important,” Mack said. “Whether you’re smart or not doesn’t matter. You’re there to breed.”
The wedding party for Henry’s marriage to Cleves included Catherine Howard, the maid of honor who would become Henry’s fifth wife. Howard was 17 and Henry 49 when they wed. She is known as the promiscuous one, said Samantha Pauly, who plays Howard.
“She started out as another woman who caught Henry’s eye when he was married,” Pauly said. “But she lived a life of sexual abuse from 9 until she died. Her mother died when she was young. She ended up in different boarding schools and homes where men would come in at night and rape the girls. She never really had a break. Henry married her when she was 17. She wasn’t the slutty one or the mistress. She was an abused child.”
Henry did a 180 with his final marriage, to Catherine Parr.
“He wanted an older woman,” said Anna Uzele, who plays Parr. “She’s known as the old and dull one who survived. She was smart, writing psalms and meditations and introducing the idea that a woman can talk to God directly instead of having to go through a man.”
After Henry’s death, Parr reconciled the family.
The queens are not dusty, long-dead figures. They — and some of what they endured — are alive in the world today, Uzele said.
To bring the message home that this is a story for everyone, “Six” has a diverse cast of performers who have been given broad latitude to bring themselves to the roles.
“It’s important to know that we can all tell these stories,” Hicks said.
Mack, who plays Cleves, hails from Chicago’s South Side.
“I, Brittney, live in the ’50s and ’60s vocally,” Mack said. “I bring all the swagger that’s needed for my character, who’s very grounded and really strong.”
And the cast is clear that even as the queens are supposed to be competing to be queen bae, they are also a tight-knit sisterhood.
“When Abby sings ‘Heart of Stone,’ she’s in the front but we stand behind her,” Mack said.
“This lets women know it’s OK to feel safe to use your voice,” Mueller added. “We want you to use it and we believe you when you do.”
The “Six” divas performed two numbers — “Ex Wives,” the intro song, and “Megasix” — at the Mall of America to the squeals of adolescent girls, who dominated the audience. The performers, who signed autographs and posed for selfies, are tickled by the comparisons of their show to “Hamilton.”
“When ‘Hamilton’ came, we thought that was the peak. What could possibly top that?” Hicks said.
“It’s not about topping ‘Hamilton’ but taking it to the next level,” Mack said. “And that’s with an all-female cast with an all-female band in a time when the voices of women need to be heard.”
“This show is not just female empowerment and history but a dose of fun — the music is what hooks everybody,” Mueller said. “You can watch it on a pure entertainment level, then get this dose of feminism you didn’t even know you needed.”