Six the Musical is the hour and a half performance that has taken the world by storm.
The brainchild of two passionate Cambridge students has travelled the world with productions in the UK, Ireland, the West End, Broadway, and now Australia at the Sydney Opera House. The show has ridden on a wave of hype, with many musical theatre websites predicting that it will follow in the footsteps of legendary musicals like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Hadestown to win the 2020 Tony Award for Best Musical. But… it's not really a musical… and it's not really that good.
Six tells the stories of King Henry VIII's six wives through a collection of pop songs as they compare lives to see who suffered the most and who should therefore lead their girl group. Each wife is modelled after a different real life pop star which ranges from Ariana Grande, to Beyonce, to Adele; and the musical is presented as a concert with onstage instruments, bright lights, bedazzled costumes, and hand held microphones.
As the audience sits in the theatre, harpsichord covers of famous pop songs from the last two decades play over the speakers and the stage is obscured by a thick layer of fog punctuated by bright purple lights. They knows exactly what they are in for: a historical pop concert.
The in-concert moments are when this musical shines brightest. The songs are catchy, fun, and exciting, and they are genuinely great pop tunes that sound like they belong on the Billboard Hot 100. The singing performances from the Australian actresses were amazing, and all of them were technically very skilled. Chloe Zuel, the actress of Catherine of Aragon was especially outstanding in her rendition of "No Way", as was Vidya Makan in her powerfully subversive finale; while Courtney Monsma's ability to portray the simultaneously tragic but fun Katherine Howard stunned audiences.
But while it is an fun production that originated as a college student's concept album, it is clear even in performance that it is not designed to exist as anything more than that. The dialogue is clumsy and tonally confused. It gives the audience proverbial whiplash by sounding like a Hi-5 concert one moment to hammy, beginner improv-style dialogue the next, before snapping to blunt, and pretty overt, British jokes about sex and adultery. The musical is confused about whether it wants to be an edgy, empowering retelling of history like Hamilton, or a fun education tool for kids like Horrible Histories. Admittedly, it does not succeed in either goal.
Six tries to emulate Hamilton's success by using modern musical elements and basing the story on a 'woke' and empowering retelling of history - but it simply doesn't work. As a revision on Henry VIII's wives, it fails to provide a new or fresh perspective. Rather, it regurgitates a bunch of facts that the audience already knows and sets it to song.
And while Six tries to sell itself as a woke, woman-power musical… it kind of isn't. Admittedly, in performance most of the characters are portrayed as strong, independent women, and they pull it off well by anchoring their music in modern day pop feminists. But again, the dialogue is what lets it down. The squabbles between the wives play into the stereotype that women are catty and bitch about each other behind their backs. Meanwhile, Jane Seymour's entire existence is just her whining about how she never had the chance to be a mother, there's a racist song where all the characters sing in a thick and purposely bad German accent while saying phrases like "das is good" and "vunderbar", and the entire musical is steeped in the idea that these women are only notable because of their relationship with King Henry VIII.
Granted, the musical realises that its premise is problematic, and the wives admit that it "would've been really cool if we reclaimed our stories", but when Six finally reframes their stories it feels disingenuous. Only in the last song of the show do the women finally reject Henry VIII and come to support and appreciate each other – and they all pat themselves on the back for doing so. So it kind of feels like the writer of the show finished five of the six songs, had a realisation that revolving a woman's life around their involvement with a man is not very woke, and had to quickly jot down a song to show that they knew that the musical was problematic from the beginning.
Six didn't have to be like that. It could have been about the women supporting each other from the start. It didn't need a storyline – it is literally a concert not a ten step hero's journey.
And that is my other problem with Six. It tries to sell itself as a musical when it really isn’t. Most of the actresses cannot act or dance, they can only sing, and the choreography they are working with is very static compared to the likes of West Side Story, Moulin Rouge or most other musicals. At the same time, the set and lighting design are barely used and don't add much to their performances.
A musical should cohesively combine acting, dancing, singing, lighting, sound design, direction, costuming, and set design together to tell a compelling story. And Six simply doesn't do that. It is no more than a concept album; and while it does merit a Tony Award for Best Original Score, a win in any other category would be undeserved.
Six will play at the Sydney Opera House from 4th January until 5th March 2020.