That a new musical has managed to grow its fanbase despite having been out of theatres for over half a year is quite something. But Six, a show about the wives of Henry VIII, has tapped into the social media world in a big way, taking over TikTok with such force that many of the teens who lip-sync the songs don’t even know they’re from a musical. Who could have predicted that 2020 would be such a big year for Anne Boleyn?
Considering its viral appeal, Six is a wonderfully niche concept: the six Tudor queens, miraculously alive again and now global superstars of pop, get together to decide which of them is the real star (Henry’s out of the running long before they get going, soz babes). Each gets a song to make her case for who had the worst deal out of being married to the guy, giving you a more thorough history lesson in 90 minutes than anything on the school curriculum.
The speed of Six’s trajectory to stardom has been unlike any other new British musical in recent years. From beginnings at Edinburgh Fringe with a student cast to a sold out West End residency, international productions and cruise-ship shows, it’s been non-stop glitter cannons since 2017. Until Covid pressed pause on everything. Six was just about to have its opening on Broadway, with a vamped up production and legions of fans who had been eagerly awaiting its arrival. The announcement that all of New York’s theatres would shut came out of nowhere for creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss.
“It really went from zero to 60,” says Moss. “There were three days leading up the closure: one day people were going ‘Oooh elbows, no hands ha ha ha’ but walking around busy theatres, the next an usher has coronavirus who works on Six, and the next we’re gonna have to close.”
“We were like, ‘What? But we’re in PREVIEWS!’” Marlow says. “I remember coming back having had our show closed down and arriving in London and everything was still going, and I was like, what are they doing? There’s a virus! It closed down our show!”
It wasn’t long until the same happened here. “We got told on our day off,” says Alexia McIntosh, who plays Anna of Cleves, “so it’s not even like we got to say goodbye to each other.”
The gang are back together now: Jarneia Richard-Noel, Courtney Bowman, Natalie Paris, Mcintosh, Sophie Isaacs and Danielle Steers play, in order, Catherine of Aragon (Divorced), Anne Boleyn (Beheaded), Jane Seymour (Died), Anna of Cleves (Divorced), Katherine Howard (Beheaded) and Catherine Parr (Survived). Although briefly delayed by the second lockdown, Six will move into the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where it opens on December 5. “I can’t believe we dethroned Thriller Live,” quips Marlow.
There’s a wobbly feeling of mixed optimism and trepidation as theatres announce show returns under the lingering possibility of more restrictions. The caution is justified — there was the recent second lockdown, while in the summer a series of planned drive-in performances were cancelled suddenly due to safety concerns, leaving both fans and performers bereft. Despite that, it’s impossible to speak to them and not feel their excitement after so long.
“It’s an amazing feeling that, all going well, there are 100 people both onstage and offstage who are now going to be employed for a bunch of time,” says Marlow. That’s quite something from an idea cooked up by two students at Cambridge University (among Marlow’s other suggestions were the Real Housewives of Shakespeare, which I’m now dying to see).
There is no denying that, while the show itself is a uniquely marvelous creation, the fans have brought it to where it is now. As a group — called the Queendom — they want to embody what many of them say is the key message: that no matter who you are, you deserve to be in charge of your own story.
Tara, a 50-year-old carer who discovered the show first through seeing posts on social media, told me she has now seen the show nine times. “I’m a middle-aged woman who fell in love with Six because this show makes me feel so empowered and uplifted after every performance I’ve watched.”
On the other end is Aleksandra, a 17-year-old student from Poland who has never seen the show live but discovered it through a YouTuber singing covers of the songs. “It touches on a lot of problems, including mine. It helped me through many hard times and made me more open to changes. My favourite queen is Anne of Cleves — she showed me that I can be great just by myself.”
The personal connection fans make with the characters goes beyond the stage. The queens have become stars themselves, thanks to the interactive concert feel of the performance paired with the charisma of its stars. This charisma is what Marlow and Moss were on the lookout for; “someone who can work a room, be themselves and be funny”. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often, says Paris, who has played Jane Seymour since the start. “There is so much of myself in her. Having that freedom is a rare thing in our industry. Most of the time you get the part and it’s very rigid, but for all of us, including the alternates and the girls that come in, everyone can add their own flavour.”
Being able to see true personalities on stage — that’s what brings the Instagram followers in their thousands. “It’s funny because they’re playing the role of a popstar,” says Moss. “So much of the rehearsal process is getting the performer to embody the role of this confident, incredible queen and it’s this self-fulfilling thing where they act like that and therefore everyone treats them like that and they become that. It’s weird to watch them learn to be this version of themself that’s a popstar who has thousands of screaming fans and now they do have thousands of screaming fans!”
“We’ve got a ride or die, hardcore Queendom,” says McIntosh. “We get so many messages of support, especially throughout lockdown. I’ve been speaking to people from South Africa, America, China. It really is worldwide now.”
Enter TikTok, where Anne Boleyn’s Don’t Lose Ur Head has been shared well over half a billion times (including by Kelly-Anne Conway’s internet-famous daughter, Claudia). “We don’t know anything about TikTok,” says Moss. Marlow adds: “Some of the songs have like a gazillion... hits? I don’t know what the word is! But they have no idea that song’s about Anne Boleyn.”
If this is the future of musical theatre, where songs take on a life of their own online, Marlow and Moss are nailing it.
One fan, Jenny, has been listening to the soundtrack with her 10-year-old daughter. They are going to see it together for the first time when it returns: “It makes you believe that you can do anything.”
Six reopens at the Lyric Theatre on December 5 — April 18, 2021, sixthemusical.com/london