“It felt like a weird time warp,” said Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, the show’s London-based choreographer, of coming back during a recent break in a Manhattan rehearsal studio. “You don’t trust it — is everything is going to be taken away again?”
Theater people have been through such a wrenching intermission, with their livelihoods in stasis for so long, that a suspicion of business returning to usual seems eminently sane. The surreality of the moment is magnified for Ingrouille, one of several key members of the show’s creative team who are making their Broadway debut with “Six.” The others are Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, the musical-writing duo who met as Cambridge University undergraduates, and Jamie Armitage, another Cambridge graduate who directed the show with Moss.
“The whole energy of it is different,” Armitage said of the emotionality of the venture now, even though the cast remains identical. “The whole experience is going to be bigger.”
All along, “Six” was determined to be part of a resurgent theater district. Kevin McCollum, one of the musical’s lead producers, told me earlier this year he’d tempered his disappointment on March 12, 2020 — the date of both the original opening night for “Six” and the start of the shutdown — with a vow to be one of the first shows back.
That didn’t quite occur: “The Lion King,” “Hadestown,” “Hamilton” and “Wicked,” among others, beat “Six” back onto the boards. (“Six” began preview performances Sept. 17.) No one — not even some of Broadway’s seasoned hands — could have anticipated the sheer number of shows, mostly old but some new, that have nailed down slots in Broadway’s 41 houses. Some productions are booked for short engagements; others, like “Six,” are open-ended.
A few mainstays before the coronavirus pandemic, such as “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” have bid adieu. But even some shows that had closed or announced the end of their runs, including the musicals “Waitress” and “Beetlejuice” and the seriocomedy “Slave Play,” have changed course and opted for theatrical reincarnations in the wild new Times Square land grab.
The tried-and-true shows are busily trying to remind theatergoers of Broadway’s timeless appeal, an effort on display during the recent Tony Awards, when CBS broadcast what amounted to a two-hour concert benefit for musical theater. “Six,” as a fairly unknown quantity — it was just starting to generate buzz during its preview performance period in late February and early March 2020 — is a riskier property in this crowded marketplace. With many ticket buyers leery, despite theaters’ vaccination and mask requirements, and theater-hungry visitors from around the country and the world not yet back in sufficient numbers, some insiders worry about a big shakeout to come.
The frustrations of the pandemic seem to have better armed the “Six” newcomers for the vagaries of an industry with a perennially high failure rate. “I feel all of us have come in with more perspective,” Moss observed, adding that she’s not as worried about adverse reactions to the show. “The worst-case scenario is, someone doesn’t have quite so good a time.”
Perhaps their sober vision can be traced to how much further “Six” has taken Moss and Marlow than they ever imagined. The show’s cheeky conceit is that the six wives of King Henry VIII — who serially got rid of most of them, two at the cost of their heads — convene for a contest. The prize is to be crowned the lead of their pop-singing group, a victory to be fought in a battle of musical grievances: Which wife can demonstrate in song that she was the most cruelly treated?
The songwriters took their school project with Armitage in 2017 to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of the theater world’s great laboratories for dramatic innovation. That led to a snowballing success in Britain that eventually ended with a London producer, Kenny Wax, bringing it to the West End. There, McCollum — a lead producer of “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and the upcoming musical stage version of the 1993 film comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire,” caught up with it in 2019 and signed on for Broadway. The popularity of the London cast album for “Six” helped to generate excitement on this side of the Atlantic.
The interrupted trajectory of “Six” threw a weird curveball at a pair of writers at the start of their careers. How different might their lives be now had “Six” begun its Broadway run more than a year and a half ago? (Moss is 27 and Marlow turns that age on Oct. 12.) Sitting in a makeshift office next to the rehearsal space for “Six” on West 42nd Street, the pair acknowledged that during the hardships of the pandemic they had to struggle with some tensions in their friendship. But they’ve also continued to work; during the shutdown, they wrote an entirely new musical — whose details they wouldn’t discuss — and are shopping it around.
“I think before the pandemic, we just had a different relationship with the show and with success and what it all meant,” Marlow said. “It all happened so quickly. We were very self-deprecating with the whole success of it.”
Part of what has changed, Marlow added, is their appreciation of “the scale of what the show got to.” They realize how “privileged” they’ve been, they say, by virtue of their elite university educations and other measures of status.
The set (by Emma Bailey) and costumes (by Gabriella Slade) have been cleaned and the cast of “queens” — Abby Mueller, Adrianna Hicks, Samantha Pauly, Andrea Macasaet, Anna Uzele and Brittney Mack — fully rehearsed for their crowning event. No big changes have been made to “Six,” but the pandemic did affect the atmosphere of the preparations.
“All of us have changed so much as people,” Moss said, adding that much care was devoted to making everyone feel comfortable being together, physically, and allowing the actresses to explore new facets in their interpretations. After all, she explained, the characters are not based strictly on history; they’re conveyances for some contemporary ideas about women and power and art.
“It feels like a lot of time has passed,” Marlow mused. It seems safe to assert, though, that for a team that has waited for this moment for so long, time on opening night will fly.
Six, by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., New York. ticketmaster.com.