Six-Point Plan: An Inside Look at SIX
Musical smash SIX was conceived and devised by 24-year-old Toby Marlow and 25-year-old Lucy Moss, who started writing the show when they were students at Cambridge University in early 2017. Featuring a chart-topping score, an all-female backing band known as the “Ladies in Waiting,” and a Broadway-ready cast of Tudor Queens-turned-Pop Princesses, SIX remixes five hundred years of historical heartbreak into an exuberant celebration of 21st-century female ferocity. How did this new musical go from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to global phenomenon, and what makes these six historical Queens so electrifying in the modern-day spotlight? Toby and Lucy take you inside the action, discussing the SIX ‘manifesto,’ the show’s journey, and more!
Tell us about the story of SIX. What should we expect?
Lucy Moss: SIX is told by the wives of Henry VIII—but as a girl group performing a pop concert for an audience. They’re sick and tired of everyone arguing over who’s the most important wife, and the Queens decide to hold a competition between them: whoever had the worst time in her marriage to Henry VIII will be crowned the leading lady of the girl group! The pop concert consists of each Queen singing a solo in order to stake a claim for the spotlight—but, without wanting to give too much away, not everything goes according to plan…
Were there any challenges in adapting these historic women’s stories into contemporary pop music?
Toby Marlow: When we started writing the songs, it was tricky to find a balance between trying to make them sound like actual pop songs while also achieving the same level of storytelling and humor as our favorite musical theater songs. Given that chart pop songs are usually fairly similar in their structures, we wanted to be sure to avoid the score sounding too repetitive. However, we soon found that the repetitive nature of pop music often proved really useful in our storytelling, such as in Katherine Howard’s song, “All You Wanna Do,” in which we gradually subvert the meaning of the chorus throughout the song. At the start, it’s flirtatious and cheeky but, by the end, the chorus becomes a lament about her repeated abuse at the hands of the men in her life. With pop music there are so many tropes and expectations, and so it was really fun during the writing process to play around with those.
How did you make the Queens into six unique characters?
Lucy: We looked into their biographies, watched documentaries, and picked out the bits of their lives that would resonate for audiences today. One of our major resources was Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII. Fraser focuses on the full life of each woman, not just their stories leading up to—and, for three of them, subsequent to—their marriage to the king. Her book was instrumental in helping us separate each Queen’s identity from Henry—especially for his last wife, Catherine Parr, who had an interesting life, of which her marriage to Henry was only a very small part. Fraser also shares loads of small details that found their way into SIX. For example, we loved one of Anne Boleyn’s mottoes: “Let them grumble; that is how it’s going to be.” It felt like the Renaissance version of saying “Sorry, not sorry,” so we snuck that version of the original motto into the hook of her song. We also enjoyed the descriptions of Anna of Cleves as a divorcée developing a penchant for drinking, hunting, and partying. Those details had a huge influence on how we wrote her song.
What inspired you to write a musical that tells women’s stories?
Lucy: Toby and I have loads of female friends who are incredible performers. But they don’t often have opportunities to show how funny or brilliant they are because many musicals don’t have complex, comedic parts for women. In our first writing session, we wrote a ‘manifesto’—our SIX Six-Point Plan—of what we were setting out to do. One component was about writing great parts for women. Another was to highlight the parallels we saw between the Queens’ experiences with those of women today.
How does SIX bridge these sixteenth-century queens and contemporary pop music?
Toby: Each Queen as we imagined her has a few parallels in the modern-day pop world, and each song is influenced by a number of contemporary singers. Aragon is the Beyoncé of the group. And then there’s Anne Boleyn: traditionally she’s taken very seriously, so we wanted to flip that on its head and make her fun and carefree—like Lily Allen or Avril Lavigne. Jane Seymour is inspired by Adele and Sia. Anna of Cleves’ song is this Rihanna/Nicki Minaj parody. Katherine Howard is inspired by Ariana Grande and Britney Spears—kind of bubblegum pop. And we’ll subvert that by… well, you’ll see. And then Catherine Parr is like Alicia Keys, the soulful one who brings everyone together at the end. Some audience members might respond to the Beyoncé references, while others will relate to Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn as historical figures. There’s a little something for everybody.
Lucy: You can see these parallels in SIX’s design, as well. Our costume designer, Gabriella Slade, was inspired by the pop stars we used as the basis for each Queen. So there’s a Renaissance corset paired with the signature Ariana Grande miniskirt, and you’ll see the classic Tudor sleeves along with an ornate Beyoncé-style headpiece—it’s a mash-up between a contemporary pop and Tudor silhouette. That design carries over to the all-female band, the Ladies in Waiting, too.
Tell us about your collaboration and how this play came to be.
Toby: Lucy and I were at Cambridge together. We ended up working on a lot of the same shows—she directed and I acted. We talked about writing a musical together some day. In 2017 the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society asked for applications to take an original musical to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, so I applied. When I got the gig I asked Lucy to write it with me. I said, “I have an idea for a pop concert musical with the six wives of Henry VIII. Do you want to write it with me?”
Lucy: And I agreed, even though I had never written anything before!
After the Edinburgh Fringe, SIX has toured the UK, premiered in London’s West End, and played across North America. How has the show continued to develop over this journey?
Lucy: So much of the show is shaped by the individual six queens performing onstage—and what each brings to her role and to the group dynamic. Even though each Queen had a palette of pop stars who inspired their character, the actual interpretation of them is super malleable. The performers have really made these roles their own—even taking inspiration from artists who weren’t around when we were first writing SIX. We have been so excited to see all these incredible performers’ versions of the Queens.
SIX‘s Six-Point Plan
In an initial meeting about SIX, creators Toby and Lucy decided to write a kind of manifesto of what they were trying to achieve. This six-point plan was essential in shaping their writing process, and explains why the show exists in the way it does:
- We want to provide a different perspective on the six queens separate from their status as wives.
- We will give female historical figures a voice to tell their own experiences—experiences that have, in the past, predominantly been told by men.
- We aim to show that even 500 years later, there are still parallels to be found in the female experience.
- We will show that women can tell stories together that are interesting, engaging, clever, and funny—stories told by women do not have to be about or include men in order to be entertaining.
- We plan to use the pop concert genre to enable this fun, silly, comic, and powerful story to be told exclusively by women—but not just “for” women—and in order to facilitate our third aim.
- All of the above needs to be done whilst above all acknowledging the silliness and campiness of its own genre and being self-aware of its own message; it should never be earnest or too sincere.
Interview courtesy of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.