Six and Context Collapse

Six, the smash West End hit currently in its North American premiere in Chicago, is not your average musical. Yes, it’s all pop music, but that’s not even what I’m talking about—it’s 2019, we’re pretty used to the idea of contemporary music styles in theater. However, the format of Six is highly unusual, even for modern musicals.

Mean Girls has contemporary music but it’s still a traditional musical in that plot happens, the characters sing what’s going on, and then the story continues through time. As with almost every show in Broadway, the music is non-diegetic, meaning that the characters don’t know they’re singing and don’t acknowledge the music as happening in their world.

In Six, the plot has already happened. The conceit of the show is that the six wives of Henry XIII (as ghosts? Zombies? Vampires?) have returned for a live concert tour and one song at a time share their stories with the audience. You learn things about each character as the show goes on, but it’s less of a musical and more of a storytime YouTube video with extremely high production value. As such, the characters are fully aware that they’re singing, and in the canon of the show all of these songs are pre-written to be performed for you tonight.

The thing about Six that really gives people pause is that the soundtrack has only nine songs, with a total runtime of only 90 minutes. I recently had a conversation with a friend who asked me what I thought about the show, say that he heard it was a “Hamilton copycat” and expressing his surprise at how short it was.

Now I, having seen the show and done a minimal amount of research into the history behind its development, rushed to defend it. Truthfully I think the Hamilton comparisons are definitely overstating it—it’s another show with contemporary music about historical events, but the similarities for the most part stop there (although I did say that one song in particular had “big Eliza Hamilton energy”). More pressing, however, was my need to tell him that this was developed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and so wasn’t written to be a traditional stage musical. That’s why it’s short and weird and different! If you understand the context you’ll understand the show and won’t judge it unfairly.

That’s when I realized what the inherent conflict of Six is: context collapse. Context collapse is a term in the social sciences referring to when something intended to reach a limited audience ends up reaching far beyond it, removed from its original context and placed into infinite variations of contexts for each person who experiences it. Context collapse is not the absence of context. The very issue is that everything you experience has context, but the context you bring to a piece of media may be far outside the intended audience.

In the case of Six, the context is an understanding of what most musicals are like. They have plot that progresses more or less linearly, the music is mostly non-diegetic, and (on the Broadway level) they’re almost all more than two hours long. There are exceptions to all these rules, but one show violating all of them puts it in a strange spot as it traverses from an experimental festival to mainstream theater audiences.

Its next production will be staged at the American Repertory Theater, which will presumably develop the show further and attempt to transfer it to Broadway. The ART has mounted many recent Broadway productions, including Waitress and the upcoming Jagged Little Pill, and its work with Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 proves that they’re not afraid to bring unconventional stagings to the Great White Way. Will the ART lengthen the show and add more songs? Expand the onstage plot rather than keeping the conceit that everything was prepared ahead of time? I think that it will need to at least be longer in order to make it to Broadway.

None of this is to say that Six is bad. On the contrary, I loved it. The music is incredibly fun, and all six queens I saw absolutely sung their faces off. The plot is a little shallow and I hope it’ll be developed further, but the dialogue is so witty that it makes up for it. I certainly can’t get any of the songs out of my head.

I simply think that as it stands now, Six will be judged harshly because audiences will expect one thing (a full stage musical) and get another (a pop concert with dialogue). I’m not sure if the answer is to change how Six is perceived, or to change what it is. Whatever happens, I’ll be very interested to see how the story unfolds.

P.S. The most popular song from the Six London recording is Anne Boleyn’s song. Catherine of Aragon must be fuming in her grave.