A New Pop Musical About the Six Wives of Henry VIII

A New Pop Musical About the Six Wives of Henry VIII August 13, 2019

I was in London recently for a family vacation. Lots of new discoveries, including Sue Symons, whose beautiful, emotional depictions of scenes from the Hebrew Bible were on display at Bath Abbey. She’s also done a New Testament series, and I’d really recommend them for your delight and meditation.

I also saw “Six,” a pop musical about the women mostly known to us as items in a list: “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” This is a pop confection, tarted up with flashy costumes and more girl-power boosterism than hard thinking; I had low expectations and therefore a lot of fun. The show’s flaws are as revealing as its midriff-baring, spangle-strewn ensembles, so I figured I’d give you a short post about it. For those in the Boston area, it’s playing now in Cambridge; it will also come to Broadway at some point in the near future. I do NOT know the history here so apologies if anything below is wrongheaded from a sober intelligent person’s pov.

The show is framed as a competition in which each woman sings about her woes, and the audience will vote at the end on who had the hardest life. Like Eurovision, but for suffering. Of course since the show is v. v. feminist we won’t actually pit these ladies against each other, so really they just sing in sequence. Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr have ballads, which maybe you’ll like if you like pop ballads. To me the other, spikier songs were more interesting, and in fact more effective at evoking sympathy because they didn’t so blatantly make a grab for the heartstrings.

Skipping the first wife (or, I’m guessing, the only woman ever united with Henry in the sacrament of marriage??) for a moment, let’s go to Anne Boleyn: a sans-souci sketchfest, the living embodiment of her anthem’s chorus: “Sorry, not sorry!” This is such a weird place to take the character and I enjoyed it immensely. It brought out the adolescent aspects of the story, but I wanna and you can’t make me! She’s a cavalier homewrecker and climber, and it works because all the way through we all know what happens to her. She takes that pop persona where it’s cute that you never apologize and sets it in a world where driving top speed through your life will get you killed by your totalitarian husband. She’s whistling past the Tower, and I loved it, as I love all forms of whistling in the dark.

Anne of Cleves! Anne of Cleves gets two songs, possibly because she’s the only wife (again, I don’t know the history) who actually achieved worldly success aka “girl power.” First we get a hilarious Eurotrash song about Hans Holbein (really!), combining the two enduring German musical stereotypes of cabaret and “Sprockets.” This also offers the endearing contemporary touch of explaining that her problem was that “I didn’t look like my profile picture.” Then Anne sings about how she got out of her humiliating marriage to Henry not only alive, but with her very own castle. She glories in it, even her dancing is like a taunt, there’s a playful childlike quality (she chants the King of the Castle chant as her chorus) which is pure pleasure rather than the edgy bad-idea midnight girlhood of Anne Boleyn’s song.

Last among the three standout songs/characters is Katherine Howard, whose song begins with the same sordid hijinks of the Boleyn sequence: “Lock up your husbands, lock up your sons/Kate Howard’s in town and we’re gonna have fun!” (sorry, lyrics are all approximate as I didn’t take notes.) But then the unsettling details begin to emerge, like how her introduction to sex was when she was 13 (14?) with an authority figure, and slowly the grabby, romantic-trainwreck sexuality starts to look much more like a #metoo narrative in which serial heartbreak starts to look like the aftermath of abuse. This production’s Howard was styled very Sporty Spice, all ponytail and booty shorts, the perfect foil for the awful story she unfolds.

This show’s Catherine of Aragon really worked to give the character the sass and fire the book clearly wants her to display. Her song is good but not great–it’s the Annes and Kate Howard whose melodies are still stuck in my head a week later. C. of A. gets a good quick jab about the dissolution of the monasteries; this show portrays her as a devout Catholic, but also wants to portray her as in some way a Strong Female Role Model. The show wants her to be fierce. Those two things don’t really go together when her story simply cannot be jammed into the S.F.R.M. narrative of worldly success.

The biggest underlying problem with the show comes out precisely in her lyrics: “I’m Catherine of Aragon, my loyalty is to the Vatican/Try to get rid of me? You won’t try that again!” is charming, but completely untrue to a history where… he absolutely did try that again, and got away with it. Her chorus is all about how there’s “n-n-n-n-n-n-no way” he’ll get rid of her. But he does. She dies in exile in England.

This song could actually work, could be poignant and complex, if it were taken in a harder and sadder direction. What if Catherine holds on to the belief that no matter what happens in the world of men, she is married to Henry and that bond is one not even the King has the power to break? If only the song had let her admit that he got rid of her quite effectively in the world’s eyes, but that they were bound together ’til death in the eyes of God. That could give you a wrenching triumph when she predeceases Henry (this I had to look up) and is finally free. It could also give a spin on the show’s insistence that the women are more than just their common bond as Henry’s wives: Her bond to Henry did define her life, as she said, even in the face of Henry’s insistence that it didn’t.

The same problem comes up for all the wives at the end. The show wants them to have a happy ending, because girl power, but they manifestly and extremely didn’t. So instead we’re invited to imagine an alternate history where they all get together and… go on tour as a pop band.

Really??? Your dreamworld ending is that you get to be a different kind of celebrity? I know it’s meant to be an image of women’s friendship and exuberance, but it is, in fact, just the Spice Girls, an almost aggressively banal triumph set against their catastrophic defeats.

This would’ve been controversial for several reasons, but something less banal and equally woman-centered would be (for example) ending with them all in Heaven. Admit that many people’s earthly lives aren’t powerful triumphs of fierceness! And give a real promise that something better than simply being queen–or queen of the charts–awaits us. If you don’t want to do that, then go in an even more Hamilton direction and emphasize a historical reassessment, where the wives live again in the minds of contemporary people and their integrity (or whatever, lol) is recognized and honored. That’s less satisfying but also more honest than asking me to feel good about a thing that never happened and wouldn’t be anything more than mere worldly success if it had. If worldly success is the measure then Henry wins. Don’t play that game, girl!

Picture of Anne Boleyn with her head where it oughta be via Wikimedia Commons.

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