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‘SIX’ Gives Henry VIII’s Queens their own Voices
A couple of U-M alumni have been losing their heads being part of the touring company of the musical “Six.”
They also know considerably more about the six wives of Britain’s King Henry VIII than they did before scoring their positions in the show, which opens Tuesday, May 23 at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.
“I won’t lie; I didn’t have much knowledge of British history pre-‘Six,'” acknowledges Alexandra “Zan” Berube, 25, who portrays the most famously beheaded second wife, Anne Boleyn. “Going into our rehearsal process we had a few books to read, a docuseries we needed to view, then had meetings with the director. After getting all this knowledge we were supposed to come up with our own historical presentation of our queens and their lives in artistic ways; some people did a rap, some did power points, skits, scenes.
“I don’t know if any of us are experts or scholars or anything like that, but we feel really close to our characters now.”
“Six,” created by the British duo of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and opened during 2017, portrays the six wives as pop stars in concert, initially vying against each other over who had the worse experience with the boorish 16th century monarch before eventually uniting in sisterly empowerment. It’s an irreverent take, declaring in the opening number that “history’s about to get overthrown,” and it’s filled with quips and contemporary pop culture references drawn from the age of social media and #metoo.
“We get to turn history on its head,” Berube says, “and all the things you may have heard about the wives, you get to delve deeper into what wasn’t put in the history books. That’s a blast.”
The queens, meanwhile, are also modeled after contemporary pop icons. Berube’s Boleyn, for instance weaves in elements of Miley Cyrus and Avril Lavigne, while fellow Wolverine Aline Mayagoitia incorporates characteristics of Britney Spears and Ariana Grande into her Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, who was also beheaded.
The quirkiness hasn’t kept audiences away — and, in fact, has probably drawn them to the theater in droves. “Six’s” original production was nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards, while the Broadway edition won a pair of Tony Awards, including Best Original Score and Best Costume Design in a Musical. The “Six: Live on Opening Night” Broadway album also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard cast album chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
“It’s a great show, and this truly is a dream role,” says Mayagoitia, who was a senior at U-M when Berube was a freshman. She was cast for the part in 2020 but had to wait until theater tours resumed last year to hit the boards with it. “With ‘Six,’ the way Lucy and Toby approached the story, it’s this amalgamation of real historical figures but also these pop queens, which is a really creative way of telling their stories.”
“Six” The Hard Way
Berube and Mayagoitia both have their own stories that led them to “Six,” of course.
Mayagoitia was born in Mexico, where her parents were both actors and was part of a production of “Annie” as a child. The family moved to Austin, Texas, when she was 10, where Mayagoitia continued to build her resume and even had a chance backstage encounter with Liza Minelli. The worldwide reputation for U-M’s musical theater program led her to audition and head north, where she was able to expand her interests and skill sets.
“I made a mission to myself to get to know stagecraft from every angle,” Mayagoitia says. “I produced, I choreographed, I did makeup, design, worked in the costume shop, learned to make wigs by hand. I tried on every single hat in the theater industry and found what I loved and what I didn’t, which was such a great opportunity to have.” While Berube was working her way through school Mayagoitia went on to regional theater and TV productions before joining “Six.”
Berube hails from Boston and began singing at the age of five with an aunt who’s a voice teacher. She attended the Walnut Hills School for the Arts, a residential high school, and was also drawn to U-M by its reputation and some older classmates who also attended. “I fell in love with the faculty and the campus and the students,” says Berube, who performed in some Cabaret 313 shows while she was in Ann Arbor. She also maintains a strong rooting interest in the school’s sports teams.
“At the stage door sometimes people see Michigan in my bio and feel the need to tell me they’re from Ohio,” she says with a laugh. “I just say, ‘Go Blue!'”
It was a happy reunion for both actresses when they ran into each other at final callbacks. “I was thrilled (Mayagoitia) was in the room,” Berube recalls. “This is my first national tour, so having someone I knew going into it felt like a blessing.”
And while the six queens spend plenty of time sniping at and about each other during the show, Berube and Mayagoitia both say the cast members are tight with each other.
“People can’t believe it; we’re a cast of 10 women, so there must be drama,” Berube notes. “The fact and reality is there’s not. There’s nothing to be dramatic over. It’s a cast of amazing human beings first and incredible artists, second — and our crew and band are the best people, too. It’s like our home away from home.”
The Queens’ Gambits
Both actresses have gleaned a strong perspective on their characters as part of “Six.” Despite a scarcity of information about Howard, Mayagoitia says that in Marlow and Moss’ hands she’s become “a very complete character. She last a lot of humor, a little stand-up comedy set in the middle of the show. Then she gets one of the harshest moments in the show, which is her sexual assault and eventual decapitation. So I really get to explore a real range with (Howard), and that is really fun for me.”
For Berube, meanwhile, Boleyn is “a very intelligent woman who was put in a position where she had no choice but to be with this man who set his eyes on her. But her history is fascinating, and there’s still so many mysteries about her reign.”
What both like best about “Six,” ultimately, is the message of empowerment it sends as the queens — their 2023 representatives, at least — find their power at a time the message is decidedly welcome and unfortunately still necessary.
“There’s a joke I get to say in my song, that it turns out men just employ women to get them into their private chambers. It was a different time back then — ha, ha, ha,” Mayagoitia says. “I love saying that ’cause I get to speak truth to power. It breaks my heart that 600 years later we’re still having this issue…and also the greater issue of all these women’s lives and reproductive issues. We haven’t fixed them yet. The fact is that today, even though we have all these resources and knowledge, there are people whose feelings aren’t that different than (Henry’s).
Berube adds that, “People get to take away this super powerful message of these women who did all these things they weren’t supposed to during that time. You realize that they were MAKING history 600 years ago…even if it didn’t work out well for them at the time.”
“Six” opens Broadway in Detroit’s 2023-24 season Tuesday, May 23 through June 11 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.com.