Which queen will take the crown? When six queens compete for the title of most tragic life, could the real winner be...our society's approach toward female-centric stories?
On paper, the plot, the script, and the various framing devices of Six would elicit a certain level of cringe, and would function as easy fodder for political conservatives lamenting the overly-liberal, overly-PC nature of today’s media landscape. And for the first few minutes of Six, audience members at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre may have initially agreed with these simple criticisms. “History” is quickly reframed as “Herstory”, the onstage band is comprised solely of female musicians, the six historically White ex-wives are portrayed by a racially diverse cast of Broadway stars, and the women are referred to as “Queens” so frequently you inherently anticipate an adjacent “yas” or “slay”. And while this play seems so loudly feminist and woke, any audience member that leaves the theater with this opinion intact has failed to grasp the self-awareness and intelligence this musical exhibits amidst numerous, unavoidable cultural landmines surrounding women and race. Eschewing more classical areas of review (the six leads were outstanding vocalists, the songs were wildly catchy, and the set was both flexible and intriguing), it feels important to note how successfully this show navigated the cultural critiques it was bound to encounter.
The show’s premise—the six ex-wives of Henry VIII, all reimagined as pop-stars, compete against one another to determine who suffered the saddest fate, only to realize that they don’t need to define themselves by their notorious ex-husband—feels trite and half-baked. It feels akin to a form of feminism that birthed the female-led Ghostbusers or Ocean’s 8 reboots. The choice to give space to female stories and non-white faces is, in today’s America, political. It does not matter what, if anything, is said by their characters. The fact that they are taking up space is a statement. This musical, by choosing to tell these stories with these actors, will be analyzed by many as a political act supporting an agenda. But the playwrights clearly anticipated these types of criticisms, and the musical is peppered with witticisms and gags that point out how vacuous this show could have been. After all, these six women do have interesting stories to tell and they are complex characters beyond their infamous marriages to the same man. But this fact is a Catch-22 that Six underscores repeatedly—while these six women have intricate stories and emotions that extend beyond Henry VIII, they would have disappeared into history if it wasn’t for the king. The task, with all this in mind, becomes two-fold. (1) How do you showcase six women, who are historically defined by their marriages to one man, as independent personas while acknowledging that one man is key to their longevity? And, (2) how do you craft a show that celebrates women without being dismissed as a politically correct, anti-man production? It’s the second point which I believe is the most difficult, and which the musical handles most successfully. Male-centric stories are rarely scrutinized to the same degree as female-driven plots, and Six does not ignore this reality, but embraces it, calls attention to it, and leaves the matter unsettled. While the various issues that this musical confronts both obliquely and head-on are heavy and pervasive, what’s even more impressive is the mood of the theater once the show has ended. With the audience on their feet, dancing to a mash-up of catchy reprises amidst a shower of gold confetti, it's impossible to ignore that, at the end of the day, this show is simply just fun.