Six: The musical that’s making history hip

Who’d have thought that a student show about Henry VIII’s wives would become a global megahit? The two friends who created Six the musical certainly didn’t – and, as they tell Julia Llewellyn Smith, they’re still trying not to lose their heads.

six the musical
Eleanor Howarth

It’s Tuesday night in London’s West End and on the tiny stage of the Arts Theatre six women dressed in slinky, studded costumes – like Tudor gowns cut off above the knee – are rocking out to an all-female band. ‘Divorced,’ sings one, introducing herself. Each continues in turn: ‘Beheaded.’ ‘Died.’ ‘Divorced.’ ‘Beheaded.’ ‘Survived.’ The audience whoops and applauds as they all belt out: ‘Everybody knows that we used to be six wives.’

Welcome to Six, the musical that’s taken the West End – and now the globe – by storm, with 700,000 tickets sold worldwide. The barnstorming show, where Henry VIII’s six wives are transformed into a Little Mix-style pop group indulging in a sing-off about who was most ill-treated by the Tudor monarch, was written by Cambridge University students Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow in just ten days while revising for their final exams. It went on to be nominated for five Olivier Awards last year and the cast recording has been streamed more than 100 million times, making it one of the most streamed musical soundtracks after Hamilton. The show’s most popular song, ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’, sung by Anne Boleyn, has been watched on YouTube 20 million times.

Right now, Six is sold out in the West End until spring. The success of the show has even spawned a themed tour at the National Portrait Gallery, where paintings of the six wives hang in the Tudor Galleries.

The musical is also touring the UK and Australia, playing on three cruise ships and in various venues in Canada and the US. It previewed on Broadway this Thursday and talks are in progress about a film version. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ says Lucy, 26. ‘Broadway was always on my radar as the shiniest, most exciting place in the world but I never thought I’d work there, let alone at the start of my career.’

Six the musical
The show is more like going to a pop concert than the theatre. Image: Eleanor Howarth.

It’s quite a feat for the friends, just over two years since Six was spotted by West End producers when playing at a tiny Edinburgh Fringe venue. Now – as Toby, 25, puts it – they are ‘constantly gallivanting around the world’ supervising international openings of the show. ‘Sometimes life can be really glamorous,’ he admits. ‘It wasn’t what I expected after uni. I thought I was going to be working at the Apple store in Cambridge – they’d offered me a job.’

Other highlights include attending the Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards where they were invited to share a table with US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who took time out of her jam-packed Fashion Week schedule to see Six when she was in London.

As well as meeting Wintour that night, Lucy recalls, cringing, ‘Olivia Colman came up to me and said congratulations. I said “Congratulations to you, too, you’re a very famous lady.” I sounded like such an idiot. But I ended the evening by making a date with the wine waiter, so it was all good.’

A few weeks after the awards they attended the West End premiere of the musical Dear Evan Hansen, where they were seated next to Andrew Lloyd Webber, a self-declared fan of their show (others include Geri Horner, Holly Willoughby and Dustin Hoffman). ‘He told us that to write a musical about Henry VIII’s wives was a no-no because everyone knows what happened so no one cares,’ Lucy laughs. ‘Only idiots like us, who were too stupid to realise that was a problem, would touch it.’

Six the musical
Toby once found himself on stage playing Catherine Parr. Image: Eleanor Howarth.

Clearly he was wrong. But why has Six struck such a chord with audiences – particularly teenage girls, whose raving about the show on social media played a huge part in its success? Partly it’s because of its format – The X Factor with a touch of Horrible Histories – combined with insanely catchy tunes and witty lyrics. Anna of Cleves (in the show she is called Anna not Anne) performs a Rihanna-style number about how Henry rejected her because ‘I didn’t look like my profile picture’.

‘It feels much more like going to a pop concert than a serious bit of theatre,’ says Lauren Brown, 20, one of the fans waiting in the foyer after the show to meet the cast. But, according to Lucy, it’s also because it tapped into a call brought on by the #MeToo movement for female empowerment – with Six’s message being that these women were brilliant individuals, not just wives.

‘We decided we wanted to do something with a majority of females. Until then, I’d been thinking, “Why is it that every show I see is about these stupid boy characters and the only women are the girlfriends?” The world was ready for something different. Toby and I thought, “We want loads of women who are funny and as entertaining as hell, who are telling me that I can be someone, that they’re not just shunting me to the side.”’

Sitting in the bar of the Arts Theatre, Lucy and Toby (she focuses on choreography and directing; he writes most of the tunes, but they both do ‘a bit of everything’) are clearly terrifyingly talented, but also couldn’t be more fun. Lucy grew up in Ealing, West London, the daughter of a fund-manager dad who died of multiple sclerosis when she was 14, and a tax-adviser mother. Lucy attended dance school for two years, supporting herself by working as a cage dancer, before studying history at Cambridge. She’s the more reflective of the pair, while Toby, a former child actor from Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, is the more flamboyant. He devised Six after the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society asked him to write something original for the Edinburgh Fringe, as it had no money to pay royalties for an established show.

Six the musical
Six’s creators Toby and Lucy with the current cast, from left, Jarneia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon, Courtney Bowman as Anne Boleyn, Hana Stewart as Jane Seymour, Collette Guitart as Anna of Cleves, Zara Macintosh as Katherine Howard and Danielle Steers as Catherine Parr. Image: Steve Schofield.

‘We’d been wanting to do a show about a famous group of women – we were thinking of The Real Housewives of Shakespeare,’ he says. But his thoughts kept returning to the six wives although he just couldn’t work out how to make a snappy show from their complicated histories. Then, during a poetry seminar for his English degree, the idea hit him. ‘I thought, “What if it’s a concert and they’re a girl band?” I kept thinking how they could sing about their lives with microphones and wear funky costumes and crowns. I knew I had to talk to Lucy as soon as possible.’

Lucy smiles. ‘My first thought was that this could be really naff,’ she says. ‘But I trusted Toby.’

The pair, who Toby describes as having a relationship ‘something like weird, married siblings’, quickly devised a structure where each queen sang a song in the style of a particular pop star – so Catherine of Aragon became Beyoncé, while Anne Boleyn has a zippy Lily Allen-style number and Katherine Howard does an Ariana Grande-esque pop tune.

Audiences love the show’s message, says Danielle Steers, who plays Catherine Parr: ‘You can’t compare yourself to others – instead you should celebrate the sisterhood.’ Collette Guitart, who is an understudy for all the queens, adds, ‘There are six powerful women on stage and we are saying, “Everyone has their moment to shine.”’

Fans love seeing women of different shapes, sizes and races on stage. ‘I remember going to the theatre when I was a kid and everyone was stick thin,’ says Courtney Bowman, who plays Anne Boleyn. ‘We are showing so many ways to be [a woman] and they’re all great.’

‘I think that’s really important – a lot of girls long to see someone who looks like them on stage,’ says Hana Stewart, who currently plays either Catherine Parr or Jane Seymour.

Hana also thinks that teenagers enjoy history being retold in a way that engages them, with plenty of twists to the familiar stories. For example, Anna of Cleves – whom Henry divorced after six months for being too ugly – actually ended up, as Lucy says, ‘living her best life, drinking mead, going out hunting and outliving all of them’ in a palace in Richmond.

Six the musical cast
Even the show’s costumes have become stars, with internet forums on how to re-create them and a wall in the theatre dedicated to fan art. Image: Steve Schofield.

‘School isn’t great at making history interesting,’ Hana says. ‘All I could remember about the six wives was the “Divorced, beheaded…” rhyme, so it was amazing to learn the stories of these women. Why didn’t we hear about them before? They are the reason Henry is famous.’

The show has even spawned its own cosplay scene (dressing up in costume), with passionate fans filling internet forums with tips on how to re-create the queens’ costumes, and the Arts Theatre has a special wall reserved for fan art. Hana says, ‘I’ve never felt so involved with an audience as I do during this show. By the end they’re all going crazy and you actually feel as though you are in Little Mix. It’s a shock when you remember you’re just you then go home and eat toast.’

Fans were equally enthusiastic when, last summer, Toby found himself playing Catherine Parr for two West End performances, after no other cast member was available to deputise. A refund was offered but no one accepted it. ‘I was nervous because people had paid to see a show and they were going to be seeing this weird version but it turned out to be really fun,’ Toby says. ‘I’d only do it again in an emergency.’

So what next? They’ve both been signed up by music company Warner Chappell to compose songs for pop stars such as Katy Perry (Lucy’s dream is to write for Rihanna, Toby’s for Sam Smith). They’re also working on a second musical, but Lucy says, ‘When we made Six the only stake was not to embarrass ourselves or our friends. Now they’re much higher. It’s really scary, so we’re trying to take our time. I genuinely have a feeling that this is when it all goes wrong. I’m still waiting for this to stop and I’ll have to go and look for a proper job.’

Even with work going well, the pair joke that the rest of their lives are shambolic. Both are single (the waiter Lucy briefly dated after the Evening Standard Theatre Awards ended up emigrating). ‘My mum says, “You’re too busy to find love.” I’d like to prove her wrong,’ Toby sighs.

On the ‘contact us’ section of their website, marlowandmoss.co.uk, potential partners can get in touch. ‘But there’s a box saying “I don’t want to date you, I have a serious enquiry” and when I looked the other day every email fell under that category – it was all people saying, “Can you get my niece tickets for Six on her birthday?”’ Lucy laughs. ‘Can you mention we’d love people to contact us?’ Toby asks. ‘We’re not fussy. Ideally, it would be someone not in the theatre industry but beggars can’t be choosers.’ ‘Single would be good,’ Lucy jokes. ‘And alive.’

They can cheer themselves up by reflecting on how Six has created jobs worldwide for female performers, who – as Lucy says – ‘would otherwise be playing bloody girlfriends’.

Toby adds: ‘These are women who have been in the business a long time and have always been playing supporting parts. Now that they’re finally able to be at the front, they’re, like, “I’m hilarious, I’m a star.”’

Six is currently at London’s Arts Theatre; for details and tickets go to sixthemusical.com

Six the musical is as much about #MeToo as it is about the Tudors

Lucy Worsley, historian and curator of Historic Royal Palaces, on how Six is rewriting history with flashmobs at the Tower.

Photo by Mike Lawn.

It was a complaint sent to my publisher – the sort of thing to make a swot like me feel sick.

I’d just published my first historical novel for readers aged 11 to 14 and I was longing for them to enjoy what I’d written. But this letter accused us of having done something wrong. My story was about life at the Tudor court. I’d depicted a world that treated girls as commodities, to be used for the pleasure of men. Had I really done something… awful? Eventually I realised that the person who’d complained wasn’t arguing with me. Her quarrel was with life in the past.

My fictional heroine had woken up on her 12th birthday to be told that her marriage had been arranged to an unknown older man. ‘Offended of Tunbridge Wells’ thought that this was inappropriate and that young readers had no need or desire to know such things. But the character had been inspired by real people such as Margaret Beaufort, best known as the mother of Henry VII. She was such a valuable heiress that her family married her at 12 to a man of 24. She gave birth at 13 to the son who became the first Tudor king. Henry VII would be Margaret’s only child, as becoming a mother so young left her with a prolapsed uterus. Although she was rich and powerful, Margaret must have had an upsetting life.

What makes history such a fruitful field for novelists is that you need challenges and tension for your characters to overcome. And if you look at the past, particularly for girls, you find them in abundance.

Meanwhile, there’s a generation of girls who are increasingly engaged with the political; keen to improve the world. It’s a smoking-hot combination.

I’d argue that there’s never been a better time to be a historian of, or for, women. And by historian I mean not only a researcher of the past, but a teller of stories. History once had a reputation for being dull and stuffy. Now it’s a place to discuss things that  matter. As a historian, you’re supposed to put aside the prejudices of your times and simply set out the facts – but this is impossible. Historical writing reflects the concerns of the current era, making an argument about the present as much as the past.

Some of the most powerful history that speaks to girls today can be found in Six. The girls realise that it’s the patriarchy that pits them against each other, and that they’d be better off as allies. But I was interested to learn from Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow that they didn’t set out to tell the story of the wives. They just wanted to write a show with lots of good roles for women. It’s about gender politics as much as it is about history.

I think that’s the reason why a thousand teenage girls turned up when my Historic Royal Palaces colleagues held a (not-so-secret) flashmob for the cast of Six, plus whoever wanted to come to sing along, at the Tower of London. It was inspiring to see the place – where Henry VIII had two of his wives executed – taken over by insanely enthusiastic girls. One dad had driven his daughter from Hull to take part. And when Henry’s name was mentioned it was inspiring to hear a thousand girls boo.

Like Six, every book I have written has had a not-so-hidden message about life in its present as well as the past. For me, young people’s love of a cause, of a march, of a belief in change combines brilliantly with studying history. History is enjoyable as well as teaching you analysis and judgment.

But, above all, studying the past gives you the sense that everything can and will change. If you’re not satisfied with the world today, history gives you hope for the  future. And knowing that gives you a sense of purpose.

Lucy’s new novel for 11-14-year-olds, The Austen Girls, will be published in April (£7.99, Bloomsbury Children’s Books)