The Making of ‘Six’: How Tudor Queens Turned Into Pop Stars


Spoiler alert: Things generally haven’t gone well for women who married King Henry VIII.

Until now.

“Six,” a slyly saucy pop musical about the ill-starred queens, has already stormed stages in Britain, North America, Australia and even on cruise ships. Embraced by a youthful fan base for its catchy (and social-media-amplified) score, it has been fast-tracked to Broadway, where it is previewing to full houses at the 1,027-seat Brooks Atkinson Theater before opening March 12.

The show, just 80 minutes long, has a simple conceit — They’re Tudor queens! And they’re pop stars! — as it imagines a concert in which the women compete for audience approval with songs describing marital misfortune (in two cases, beheadings). Think wall-to-wall wordplay about sex and schism, belted by a diverse group of performers whose style, sound and steps are inspired by superstars including Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj.

“Six” is the remarkably recent brainchild of two remarkably young theater-lovers: Toby Marlow, a 25-year-old who refers to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as “my mums,” and Lucy Moss, a droll 26-year-old who wears Harry Potter spectacles and neon-detailed Buffalo platform sneakers.

They met at Cambridge University, where he was studying English literature and she was studying history, and, while finishing their degrees, wrote the witty book, music and lyrics for their schoolmates to perform at a 2017 summer theater festival.

The show’s origins are so recent that Marlow and Moss still have much of its history in their phones — the Google docs where they came up with their six- (yup) point plan; the voice memos where he beatboxed ideas; the Instagram photos of early rehearsals; the text messages with a scouting producer.

There are analog keepsakes too — handwritten notes they made along the way. Here’s how they developed “Six,” illustrated by artifacts from their creative collaboration.

He didn’t know what the subject would be, but he had established four guiding principles, reflecting his politics and passions: It would have a cast that was predominantly female or nonbinary; it would have a famous subject matter; it would experiment with theatrical form, and the genre would be pop (“because it’s the best kind of music”).

Ideas started to percolate: “Real Housewives of Shakespeare”? A back story for the three witches of Macbeth? How about something on the six wives of Henry VIII? That could be interesting.

A few weeks later, Marlow’s mind started to wander during a “supervision” — Cambridge lingo for a small-group session led by a professor. The class was practicing comparative poetry analysis, but Marlow was more concerned with the six wives. “Wait, what if it’s a pop concert?” he thought. “And they could have, like, microphones!” He made a note to himself: “Need Lucy!”

step 3

Early in 2017, Marlow and Moss met in her college room. Come March, they would need to apply for a venue in Edinburgh, and that meant being able to describe a show that they had not yet written.

Moss: We were like, it could be called “Six,” but “Six” felt too easy and obvious. It must be more difficult — that can’t be the title.

Marlow: We were trying to be clever, or punny, or trying to sound too much like a girl group. “Sixth Harmony” was one of them — that’s just playing on Fifth Harmony — or there was “Little Six,” playing on Little Mix.

Moss: We knew that in the Fringe you get a very small slot in the brochure, and you kind of want the title to tell people what it is. So we ended up with it actually being called “Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live!” It was really making people in Edinburgh, who have a totally saturated market, understand what it is in a glance. It does the job.

Marlow: Also, one word titles are striking and cool. “Evita”! “Pippin”! “Hamilton”! “Six”!

They wrote the show in short bursts — a weekend at Marlow’s family house, an afternoon in a college room.

Moss: We decided that we were going to write this little manifesto. It was so earnest. All these points about how we were trying to show that women could tell stories onstage and be funny without men, and how there were parallels between the female experience of 500 years ago and the experience of people today.

But they were also determined to make it silly and entertaining, and found a pop-world inspiration for their structure and form: a 2011 video album by Beyoncé called “Live at Roseland: Elements of 4,” that weaves storytelling and concert performance. On that first day of writing, they watched the video together.

Marlow: When we started writing, I was like, “I think the songs should sound like stand-alone pop songs in their own right and they shouldn’t have Tudor references,” because I wanted to go to the Fringe with this set of pop songs that I could show people afterward. But by the end of Day 1 …

Moss: I was like, I think we should make jokes about pheasant. So for our first run in Edinburgh, half of the songs were quite generic, and half were like, “The pope said nope!”

Moss: Quite early on, we were like, let’s not have Henry there, because the whole point was them being like, “We’re taking back the microphone and telling our side of things.” But we thought Hans Holbein was a hilarious idea for a character, so he was in the mix.

Marlow: We also had a thought that the various children were going to be the backing vocalists. But then we just decided, wouldn’t it be cool if it was just the queens as the girl group, and that was the cast.

Moss: We had to write something, so we made decisions.

Marlow: Now, if we make a decision, it’s like “Oh, my God! This is going to affect billions of pounds and lives and jobs!” But then it was like, “A or B? It doesn’t matter, ‘cause no one’s going to care anyway.”

Once they settled on the dramatis personae, they had to give character to the characters. What would the wives look and sound like?

Each has her own “queenspirations” — pop stars whose sartorial and vocal stylings were primary influences. Catherine of Aragon is modeled after Beyoncé and wears gold because she was the longest-serving queen; Anne Boleyn, whose space buns signal her character’s roots in Miley Cyrus, wears green as a nod to the legend that Henry VIII wrote “Greensleeves” for her.

Moss: When we did our first preview ever, they all looked a little bit like tribute queens — Aragon looked a little too Beyoncé, and Cleves looked a bit too Nicki Minaj. We’ve refined it now.

There is symbolism everywhere: Jane Seymour has a black and white patterned corset suggesting half-timbered houses; Boleyn and Katherine Howard wear chokers as tokens of their beheadings.

The lyrics, and even the choreography, advance a reconsideration of the wives’ reputations: For example, Howard, who was criticized for early sexual activity and executed for adultery, is presented as a victim of abuse and objectification by the men in her life.

step 5

“Six” was one of 3,398 shows at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe — a citywide event that claims to be the world’s largest arts festival.

Marlow and Moss had tapped a classmate, Jamie Armitage, to direct, and had cast a group of students — plus Marlow’s little sister, Annabel, as Boleyn. They were still writing during rehearsals; meanwhile, to get attention, the cast went out “flyering” — promoting the show on the streets of the Scottish capital.

Marlow: All the queens were in costume, and they had a huge banner: “Come see the six wives as a girl group!” And then by Show 4 or5, there were all these people around, and it was sold out. I showed up at the venue, and there was a queue of people trying to get tickets.

And word of mouth was strong. The venue’s capacity was raised, from about 80 to 115, and influential figures began to turn up and ask about securing rights.

Marlow: All these people were like, “Oh, let’s go for coffee, here’s my card.” It was exciting and thrilling but also stressful.

He called a family friend, the composer George Stiles, who had once been in a band with his father. Stiles offered a piece of key advice: “Don’t sign anything.”

step 6

The road from Edinburgh to Broadway was unplanned and unusually speedy for an industry in which musicals with original scores often take years to develop.

A few months after the Fringe festival, in the fall of 2017, Marlow and Moss brought the show back to campus. That run drew more commercial interest — Stiles urged the West End producer Kenny Wax to come see it in Cambridge; Wax and Stiles then partnered with Wendy and Andy Barnes, who had seen it in Edinburgh, to give the show a for-profit life.

Then came a tough chapter: Wax suggested a four-night showcase in London. Marlow and Moss agreed, and set about hiring professional actors, but handled the communication with the student performers poorly, a step they still regret.

Moss: It was really hard, particularly because everyone in the original cast was our friend.

Marlow: We hadn’t really considered what us taking our work ahead would mean for people who had been involved.

They were rueful, but also pledged to do better. And the showcase led to a strategic decision that proved enormously important: They recorded the score, and released it, before the show began its commercial life.

That “Six” album has now been streamed more than 100 million times via Apple and Spotify. The catchy melodies and forward feminism have intersected perfectly with the TikTok moment — users making short-form videos to music clips — meaning that a large audience (the “Queendom”) has discovered the songs online, fueling interest in the stage productions.

Broadway being Broadway, there are some new bells and whistles — the costumes have been rebuilt, with more detailing and more flexible materials; the set is similarly polished, with more nods to Tudor architecture and Renaissance ornamentation; and there are a few new touches, including an oversized throne and a crowd-pleasing costume reveal that had been implied but never fully realized in previous productions.

Moss: We early on decided we wanted to hold our nerve, rather than be like, ”Oh, it’s Broadway so we have to put new stuff in it.” Things that we always wanted or intended, but hadn’t got exactly right, we would focus in on.

There are no sure bets on Broadway, but this one is as close as they come: It was capitalized for just $5 million and, with its small cast and four-piece onstage band, has low running costs for a Broadway musical. Marlow and Moss, now practiced at openings, are exuberant.

Moss: Since October, we’ve had a cast change in London, the U.K. tour opening in November, a cruise ship opening in December, and Sydney opened. So my brain is like, this is normal. But, at the same, time, why can’t I concentrate? Oh, because I’m opening a Broadway show!

Bonus Track

Marlow and Moss used voice notes to record their songwriting ideas. Here, from early 2017, is Marlow singing a first attempt at “No Way,” Catherine of Aragon’s big number.

And here is the final version of the song, as sung by Renée Lamb on a 2018 studio album.


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