Women on the verge

“Six,” a blockbuster talent show of a musical about the resilient wives of Henry VIII, prepares for Broadway.

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived … To land on Broadway. 

In life, the six wives of Henry VIII may have been controlled by their narcissistic hubby. In death, however, they’ve transcended him. Think about it:  Movies (“The Other Boleyn Girl,”) miniseries (“The Spanish Princess”), novels (notably by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir), documentaries and biographies (including David Starkey’s juicy “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”):  These women are a veritable cottage industry.

Now they’re also a Broadway-bound musical. Slated to begin previews fittingly on Feb. 13, Valentine’s Day eve, “Six” is a case of Tudor drama meets “America’s Got Talent” as each of the ladies vies to make hers the most tragic wife’s tale and thus become leader of the band. 

The show — a smash in London’s West End and Chicago that just concluded a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts — was created by a pair of then-Cambridge University undergraduates (Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss) in 2017. They not only wanted to pay homage to the wives but to female singers they admired like Adele, Arianna Grande, Beyoncé and Rihanna. Or as Moss put it, “We wanted to write loads of meaty, funny parts for women.” They’re backed by an all-female band called Ladies in Waiting.

What is it about the wives? Why have they thrived to become “live in consort,” as the musical proclaims, when other consorts have withered like two-week-old roses? Well, there’s the sheer symmetry of their fates, encapsulated by the old rhyme, and with it an archetypal quality to each of the women:

1. Divorced — Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536; queen 1509-33) — the ultimate first wife. The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (and teenage widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur), Catherine was a smart, capable consort (and regent when she had to be) who refused to compromise her Roman Catholic faith and the legitimacy of her only surviving child with Henry, Mary, by agreeing to a divorce so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn and father a male heir. Catherine paid dearly for her resoluteness with public humiliation and separation from Mary. But she never lost her religion — or her love for her husband.

2. Beheaded — Anne Boleyn (1501-36, queen 1533-36) — the witch. Possessed of a fiery wit that was tempered by the French court, the beguiling Anne was a Rules Girl who never understood, historian Starkey told us, that what’s enticing in a demanding, play-hard-to-get mistress soon becomes tiresome in a wife. This doomed her, along with her inability to produce a viable male heir — even though we know today that men, not women, determine the sex of the child. She was falsely accused of adultery and sent to the chopping block, where her magnificent courage could almost make you forget what a wicked stepmother she was to Mary. Ironically, Anne’s surviving child with Henry, Elizabeth, would become arguably England’s greatest ruler to date.

3. Died — Jane Seymour (1508-37, queen 1536-37) — the good girl. Jane is often viewed as a mouse, coming after the dazzling and exhausting Anne. You imagine Henry wanted a break from the drama. And Jane supplied it, adopting a she-stoops-to-conquer approach to her volatile spouse that brought the delegitimized Mary and Elizabeth back into the fold. She gave Henry the longed-for, albeit short-lived male successor, Edward VI, and was rewarded by being the only one of the wives to be granted a queen’s funeral. She is also the wife Henry chose to be buried beside, a dubious honor at best.

4. Divorced — Anne of Cleves (1515-57, queen, Jan. 6-July 9, 1540) — the real survivor. Henry is said to have been disappointed that her appearance in no way measured up to Hans Holbein the Younger’s sumptuous circa 1539 portrait of her and so, never consummated the quickie marriage. But whatever Anne lacked in looks, she made up for in brains and temperament. Sensing the way the winds of le divorce were blowing, Anne affably positioned herself as “beloved sister” to the king. In return, she got money, palaces, dresses, a position of prominence and an opportunity to bond with her stepchildren, of whom she was genuinely fond. She was the last of the wives to die.

5. Beheaded — Catherine Howard (1523-42, queen, 1540-41) — the tragic trophy bride. Historian Starkey described her to us as “a chorus girl.” And there was something of the party girl about Catherine, Anne Boleyn’s first cousin, who grew up in the louche household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, where girls were not above admitting men to their bedchambers at night in exchange for foodstuffs and other gifts. But the lively, musical Catherine was both too young — and too simple-minded — for informed consent and was repeatedly abused in this atmosphere. Ultimately, her “past” caught up with her and she was executed for betraying the king with her cousin, Thomas Culpepper, but not before she poignantly practiced laying her head on the block so she would not falter on the way to an early grave.

6. Survived — Catherine Parr (1512-48, queen of England and Ireland, 1543-47) — the caretaker. Cultivated, bookish and twice widowed, Catherine brought peace and contentment to Henry’s endgame — continuing her friendship with his daughter Mary and supervising the education of Elizabeth and Edward, all while authoring two religious books. Her story would seem to give the wives’ rhyme a certain asymmetry, but Catherine would not long outlive Henry. Her fourth marriage — to Jane Seymour’s brother Thomas — would prove her undoing as it sparked an overly familiar relationship between Thomas and Elizabeth and ended in Catherine dying from complications of childbirth. Just like her would be sister-in-law Jane, she, too, died, completing the circle.

As their stories demonstrate, these women were more than arm candy. To endure, they had to rely on all of their skills, sometimes seeming to be less than they were. Which makes their collective story ripe for a “Hamilton” treatment in the #MeToo era. As the women sing:

“We’re one of a kind

No category

Too many years

Lost in his story

We’re free to take

Our crowning glory”

You go, girls.

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