In 1971, Helen Reddy sang the hit female anthem:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore

In 2019, the cast of SIX: The Musical sang the pop concert musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss about Henry VIII’s six wives currently streaming 400,00 songs daily worldwide and just opened at the American Repertory Theater:

You, you said that I tricked ya
‘Cause I, I didn’t look like my profile picture
Too, too bad I don’t agree
So I’m gonna hang it up for everyone to see
And you can’t stop me ‘cause

I’m the queen of the castle
Get down, you dirty rascal

One of 9 sassy tunes, this one called “Get Down” is sung by Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack) who was divorced by Henry because he thought she wasn’t as pretty as her picture. Unlike Helen Reddy’s ditty, I couldn’t hum any of it. New music, no new ideas. But it was no barrier to the throngs of 20 somethings who were on their feet mouthing every word of every song delivered by these spunky divas.  There is no doubt this show born at the Edinburg fringe festival, blown up and on the way to B’way by way of tours in the UK and Chicago here in the USA, is entertaining. It flies by in 80 minutes, a slickly-packaged dose of history conceived as a contemporary talent competition among Henry’s six unfortunate wives now a “girl group”: DIVORCED, BEHEADED, DIED, DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SURVIVED. The wife with the worst tale of woe wins.

The premise reminded me of that of a late 50’s early 60’s TV show called “QUEEN FOR A DAY” where whichever American housewife told the biggest sob story could win a Maytag washer and dryer, among other assorted household goodies. They would be rated on an audience applause meter! I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for the contestants even then. Now, I can barely believe such a demeaning show ever existed.

In SIX each booted, burnished, and buoyant contestant-queen backed onstage by an all-female band, belts out a tune channeling one of today’s pop/hiphop queens: Catherine of Aragon(Adrianna Hicks)/Beyonce, the aforementioned Anna of Cleves was inspired by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) who urged us not to lose our heads(!) vibed Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne; her lyrics in “Don’t Lose Ur Head” ranged from witty rap to raw:

Henry’s out every night on the town
Just sleeping around like “What the hell?”
If that’s how it’s gonna be
Maybe I’ll flirt with a guy or three
Just to make him jel
Henry finds out and he goes mental
He screams and shouts like
So judgemental!
You damned witch
Mate, just shut up!
I wouldn’t be such a b…
If you could get it up

Were the tunes memorable? Not very. Only one really made an impression on me, an Adele-like power ballad called “Heart of Stone” delivered with great feeling and conviction by the golden-voiced Abbie Mueller as Henry’s third wife, the forlorn Jane Seymour. In the show’s final minutes, these vocally gifted performers suddenly come to the conclusion they need to find their own voices and flip the script suggesting the “VIIIth” is only famous because of these “six.” Clever. But is it more than that? Does it need to be? For this mature feminist: NO and YES.  I was disappointed. Why focus most of this musical on what we already know about these women from surface history and mostly in terms of their mutual husband,  instead of taking its cue from some of its own lyrics sung by sixth wife, Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele):

But why should that story
Be the one I have to sing about
Just to win? I’m out
That’s not my story
There’s so much more

So why didn’t we hear about it? I learned nothing new about any of the six wives. The musical is about them, but doesn’t flesh them out; instead they are again reduced, this time to mouthpieces for latter day woke feminism. Do women need to find our own voices? Obviously. Do we already know this? Duh. Do these wives? Now there’s the point. So I wish SIX instead of making musical theater mincemeat out of rehashed known history, had crafted something substantial out of the real meat of their lives. Again, Catherine Parr points out how much there is to tell:

Remember that I was a writer
I wrote books and psalms and meditations
Fought for female education
So all my women could independently
Study scripture
I even got a woman to paint my picture
Why can’t I tell that story?
‘Cause in history
I’m fixed as one of six
And without him
I disappear
We all disappear

Had the young creators who cobbled this together for the fringe festival, dug deeper into their subjects in development, and honored these women by telling us who they really were apart from their wayward husband, we’d have felt the weight of the injustice done to them by the bloated Henry and patriarchal history, and we’d have felt the triumph of their repressed identities unleashed. Helen Reddy sang it almost 50 years ago. I thought time was up.

See SIX:The Musical at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through Sunday September 29.