May 14

August 4, 2019

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
North American Premiere

A Scholar’s Perspective

What You Really Really Want

by Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

“Tell me what you want, what you really really want.” The blazing rap-a-tat-tat with which the Spice Girls delivered that line, in their breakout 1996 hit “Wannabe,” has established it as the most ubiquitous earworm in pop-music history. SIX echoes the line early, launching an audacious bit of time travel. Over the course of a punchy pop concert steeped in the ethos, fervor, and dazzling popcraft of the Spice Girls and some of their titanic successors (Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Lily Allen, and Alicia Keyes, amid many others), the show’s creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss undertake to retell a five-hundred-year-old story, of a king and the six women who married him, that we may think we already know fairly well.

They know exactly what they’re doing. One of the things entertainment-junkies have really, unceasingly wanted for a very long time is new shows about Henry VIII. Shakespeare’s version (written in 1613 and re-staged by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2012) was among the earliest. But on any given night of SIX’s run, The Yard will be filled with spectators who remember—in waves probably docketed by generation—other spectacles on the same subject, other tellings of the same tale: films ranging from black-and-white classic (The Private Life of Henry VIII), to Oscar-worthy middlebrow (A Man for All Seasons), to simmering potboiler (Anne of a Thousand Days); TV series toggling from PBS-earnest (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) to Showtime-hot (The Tudors). And novels compassing roughly the same spectrum of tastes: Philippa Gregory’s mass-market Boleyn series; Hilary Mantel’s Booker-anointed trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and a third volume still to come). Across many media in many registers, the story retains its power to compel—and to sell.


Because the story poses an enduring question: What to do about a man who wants everything, secures the power to pursue it, and takes a positive pleasure in destroying lives and upending worlds to grab it?

The hit books and shows about Henry have tended to center on the male lead and the depredations of his leadership: on the intensities, and the costs, of one powerful man’s desires—on what he really really wants and inexorably gets.

This show’s different. Henry (you’ll note) is nowhere in the title and (spoiler alert) nowhere onstage. (He’s aurally present, though, via a recurrent earworm of his own creation: Henry really did write the love song “Greensleeves.”) The show, instead, belongs exclusively to the six women whose energy and affect flood the stage. The Spice Girls helped posit this pointed autonomy. In “Wannabe,” they pivoted fiercely from the question of the man’s desire (“what you really really want”) to an insistence on their own: “If you wannabe my lover,” you’d better do the this, this, and this. . . .

In SIX, pop-music history meets Broadway practice. Throughout the mightily mutable history of American musical theater, the lead character’s initial song of desire—affectionately dubbed the “I Want” song—has proven the genre’s one indispensable staple. “All I want is a room somewhere” is perhaps the classic statement—but once you grasp the pattern of the “I Want” song, you’ll recognize it everywhere, from Ariel’s “I want to be part of your world” (The Little Mermaid) to Audrey’s “I dream we’ll go / Somewhere that’s green” (Little Shop of Horrors) to Alexander Hamilton’s “I am not throwing away my shot.”

The very title of SIX might predict that each character in this adroitly balanced sextet will deliver her own “I Want” song. What Marlow and Moss give us instead is a sequence of songs about what each woman got, at the hands of the man who with such prehensile force took them to wife. Only then, and through communion with each other, do they discover what they collectively want. We Six becomes #WeToo.

“What you want,” sang Aretha Franklin, a pioneer of female desire avant les Spice Girls, “Baby, I got it.” She too makes things transactional: what she wants in return for giving him what he wants is respect. If (big, precarious if) the arc of social and sexual justice is bending anywhere these days, this is where it’s bending: toward the respect that everyone desires, recognizes as a right and, with increasing intensity, insists on.

Words can express desire pretty well (think, for example, of Shakespeare’s sonnets). But the right music can ramp up such expression to the umpteenth power. SIX wants to do what all musicals want to do—and what we ask all musicals to do for us: to show us more than we knew before of what in our inmost hearts we really really want, and to map, however provisionally, a way for us to get there.

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