Six, a new show placing Henry VIII's wives centre stage, has taken musical theatre by storm following a sell-out Fringe run. We speak to the creators about re-writing 'herstory'
Toby Marlow was sitting in poetry class when the idea came to him. 'The six wives of Henry VIII were already on my mind,' he recalls, 'but I thought, how could it be done? I wasn't going to write some sort of Tudor narrative for the Fringe.'
A student at Cambridge University at the time, Marlow had been tasked by the Musical Theatre Society to come up with an original show to take to the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe – thereby avoiding expensive royalties. Keen to write a historical drama (The Real Housewives of Shakespeare was considered, then discarded) he turned to Henry's much-mentioned yet rarely revered wives – but struggled to know what to do with them.
'And then that day in class I thought, what if it's a pop concert and they're like a girl band?,' says Marlow, excited just talking about it. 'And I'm trying to concentrate on Wordsworth but keep thinking how they could sing about their lives with microphones and wear funky costumes and crowns.'
Crucially, alongside his notes about Wordsworth, Marlow scribbled three important words: 'I need Lucy'. Enter Lucy Moss, the other half of Marlow and Moss, the new kids on the musical theatre block whose show Six is taking that world by storm.
When I meet the duo in Edinburgh, it's part-way through Six's sell-out run at this year's Fringe. At that stage there's a few things they already know: that the humble musical Cambridge University took to Edinburgh in 2017 would turn the heads of several theatre producers; that Six would subsequently get a wash and brush up in the hands of a crack team of designers, music arrangers and choreographer; and that the show is destined for a four-week run in London post-Edinburgh, followed by a short UK tour.
What they don't know at that point is that the West End run will be extended due to phenomenal demand, sell out and re-book for five months in early 2019. They also don't know that tracks from the show on Spotify and iTunes, which back in August had garnered six or seven thousand listens, would hit the million play mark by mid-October.
All this, plus a glut of five-star reviews (including one from this magazine) and award nominations means Six is doing something very right. Much of its success is down to musical theatre alchemy – fusing an intelligent and witty book with fiendishly catchy songs that range from hip hop to R&B to techno, a cast of incredibly talented performers, wrapped up in a great creative team. Hats off, too, to the producers who took a punt on a brand new show and injected the cash.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss credit: Dan Wooller But all the money and talent in the world can't turn a bad show into a good one, so the biggest round of applause goes to the two young graduates who gave six of the most famous women in history a voice.
Moss co-wrote Six while simultaneously bagging a First in History from Cambridge – but Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr weren't part of her studies.
'I knew a few facts,' she says, 'and we obviously knew the rhyme and that Greensleeves was written by Henry for Anne Boleyn. And because I was studying the European Renaissance, I'd dipped a toe into their world and had a background in feminist history. But in terms of the women themselves, I didn't know a lot.'
Six is packed with funny, modern-day references ('You're gonna find out how we got unfriended,' sings Anne of Cleves at the start) but it was also important to Marlow and Moss that is was historically accurate.
'We read Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII', says Marlow, 'which is such a good book because so much has been written about them from Henry's perspective, but Antonia gives each wife a chapter, so we find out about their lives before and after they meet Henry.'
It's during Catherine Howard's seemingly seductive song, 'All You Wanna Do', that humour and fun take a temporary back seat. Beheaded for infidelity, Howard's situation is seen in a whole new light.
'We watched the BBC documentary Six Wives with Lucy Worsley', says Moss, 'and she explains the reason Catherine Howard is portrayed as someone who seduced men and slept around is because we only know about her from her trial, when all the men she'd met gave evidence against her. But she was only 13 when they started manipulating her, and Catherine got blamed for everything.'
That, along with the other five women's stories, is set straight in Six – and it's the celebration of female empowerment that is the show's crowning glory.
'We love the fun and drama,' says Moss. 'But it was so important to us that we didn't just use the same old tired, historical question about which queen was the most important – not to weigh one up one against the other but actually give them all their own individual stories.'