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Conversation with the Creators

Creators Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow talk about their vision for SIX with the staff of Chicago Shakespeare.


Tell us about the story of SIX. What should we expect?

Lucy Moss: SIX is told by the wives of Henry VIII—but as a girl group performing a pop concert for an audience. They’re sick and tired of everyone arguing over who’s the most important wife, and the Queens decide to hold a competition between them: whoever had the worst time in her marriage to Henry VIII will be crowned the leading lady of the girl group! The pop concert consists of each Queen singing a solo in order to stake a claim for the spotlight—but, without wanting to give too much away, not everything goes according to plan…


Were there any challenges in adapting these historic women’s stories into contemporary pop music?

Toby Marlow: When we started writing the songs, it was tricky to find a balance between trying to make them sound like actual pop songs while also achieving the same level of storytelling and humor as our favorite musical theater songs. Given that chart pop songs are usually fairly similar in their structures, we wanted to be sure to avoid the score sounding too repetitive. However, we soon found that the repetitive nature of pop music often proved really useful in our storytelling, such as in Katherine Howard’s song, “All You Wanna Do,” in which we gradually subvert the meaning of the chorus throughout the song. At the start, it’s flirtatious and cheeky but, by the end, the chorus becomes a lament about her repeated abuse at the hands of the men in her life. With pop music there are so many tropes and expectations, and so it was really fun during the writing process to play around with those.


How did you make them into six unique characters?

Lucy: We looked into their biographies, watched documentaries, and picked out the bits of their lives that would resonate for audiences today. One of our major resources was Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII. Fraser focuses on the full life of each woman, not just their stories leading up to—and, for three of them, subsequent to—their marriage to the king. Her book was instrumental in helping us separate each Queen’s identity from Henry—especially for his last wife, Catherine Parr, who had an interesting life, of which her marriage to Henry was only a very small part. Fraser also shares loads of small details that found their way into SIX. For example, we loved one of Anne Boleyn’s mottoes: ‘Let them grumble; that is how it’s going to be.’ It felt like the Renaissance version of saying ‘Sorry, not sorry,’ so we snuck that version of the original motto into the hook of her song. We also enjoyed the descriptions of Anna of Cleves as a divorcée developing a penchant for drinking, hunting, and partying. Those details had a huge influence on how we wrote her song.


What inspired you to write a musical that tells women’s stories?

Lucy: Toby and I have loads of female friends who are incredible performers. But they don’t often have opportunities to show how funny or brilliant they are because many musicals don’t have complex, comedic parts for women. In our first writing session, we wrote a ‘manifesto’—our SIX Six-Point Plan—of what we were setting out to do. One component was about writing great parts for women. Another was to highlight the parallels we saw between the Queens’ experiences with those of women today.s like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and what was likely originally a true and righteous response to dictatorship, to the repression by Batista’s government. Then, like Angelo, they were overwhelmed and intoxicated by power. And on a very personal level, I started to see the character of Isabel represented in my own family, and how religious my sisters and my mom were.


How does SIX bridge these sixteenth-century queens and contemporary pop music?

Toby: Each Queen as we imagined her has a few parallels in the modern-day pop world, and each song is influenced by a number of contemporary singers. Aragon is the Beyoncé of the group. And then there’s Anne Boleyn: traditionally she’s taken very seriously, so we wanted to flip that on its head and make her fun and carefree—like Lily Allen or Avril Lavigne. Jane Seymour is inspired by Adele and Sia. Anna of Cleves’ song is this Rihanna/Nicki Minaj parody. Katherine Howard is inspired by Ariana Grande and Britney Spears—kind of ‘bubblegum pop.’ And we’ll subvert that by…well, you’ll see. And then Catherine Parr is like Alicia Keys, the soulful one who brings everyone together at the end. Some audience members might respond to the Beyoncé references while others will relate to Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn as historical figures. There’s a little something for everybody.

Lucy: You can see these parallels in SIX’s design, as well. Our costume designer, Gabriella Slade, was inspired by the pop stars we used as the basis for each Queen. So there’s a Renaissance corset paired with the signature Ariana Grande miniskirt, and you’ll see the classic Tudor sleeves along with an ornate Beyoncé-style headpiece—it’s a mash-up between a contemporary pop and Tudor silhouette. That design carries over to the all-female band, the Ladies in Waiting, too.


Tell us about your collaboration and how this play came to be.

Toby: Lucy and I were at Cambridge together. We ended up working on a lot of the same shows—she directed and I acted. We talked about writing a musical together some day. In 2017 the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society asked for applications to take an original musical to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, so I applied. When I got the gig I asked Lucy to write it with me. I said, ‘I have an idea for a pop concert musical with the six wives of Henry VIII. Do you want to write it with me?’

Lucy: And I agreed, even though I had never written anything before!


After the Edinburgh Fringe, you’ve since toured the UK and premiered in London’s West End earlier this year. And now SIX is having its North American Premiere here at Chicago Shakespeare. How will the production continue to develop here in Chicago—and with an American cast, this time?

Lucy: So much of the show is shaped by the individual six queens performing onstage—and what each brings to her role and to the group dynamic. Even though each Queen had a palette of pop stars who inspired their character, the actual interpretation of them is super malleable. And the cast has already started to own their version—even taking inspiration from artists who weren’t around when we were first writing SIX. We are really excited to see just how unique these incredible performers’ versions of the Queens end up, and we fully expect that by Opening Night this production will feel a world apart from the one you’d see in London.


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