How the stars of ‘Six’ get into character as Henry VIII’s wives

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s “Six,” the pop-pastiche musical about the ill-treated wives of Henry VIII, offers the actresses playing those queens a wealth of resources and influences to draw upon.

First off, there’s the trove of books, documentaries and online articles about the real-life figures they’re inhabiting. But the show also pays homage to many a pop star, using its eclectic songbook to evoke artists ranging from Beyoncé to Celine Dion. Merging its historical trappings with its gleefully anachronistic score, the show follows Henry’s wives during a pop concert as they trade tales of the 16th-century English king’s cruelty.

“It’s not your typical musical,” says Didi Romero, who plays Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, in the touring production. “It’s a very much updated, Gen Z-type show — but at the same time, it isn’t because it’s literally history. It’s a very weird but refreshing mix.”

After the Broadway incarnation of “Six” won best original score at June’s Tony Awards, the tour has arrived in D.C. for a two-month stint at the National Theatre. Here’s a look at how the show’s six stars get into their onstage head space.

Catherine of Aragon (played by Khaila Wilcoxon)

Once the “Six” tour crowned its cast members, associate director Megan E. Farley asked the actresses to complete projects about their respective queens. So Wilcoxon — who plays Henry’s cast-aside first wife — penned a rap to the tune of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song about her character’s steadfast refusal to accept the king’s annulment of their marriage.

She says that endeavor helped shape the ferocity she brings to Catherine’s solo, the rebellious tone setter “No Way.” On that song, her guiding light is an obvious one: “Lemonade”-era Beyoncé. But Wilcoxon also channels several Latina recording artists as a nod to Catherine’s Spanish roots.

“I try to give a little Rosalía in there, and I give a little Cardi B and I give a little Shakira,” says Wilcoxon, who also watched the Starz limited series “The Spanish Princess” to prepare for the role. “So I’m trying to also pay homage to the Spanish heritage in telling the story of Catherine of Aragon, because it’s super important to me and to every little girl that’s going to watch the show and see themselves on that stage.”

Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever)

Describing herself as both a “theater nerd” and a “history buff,” Lever keeps a handwritten log of her deep dive into the assertive Boleyn’s polarizing life and legacy. Among the titles already checked off her lists: the books “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” and “Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies” and the movies “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.”

Before delivering her “Six” performance — including her rendition of the punky romp “Don’t Lose Ur Head” — Lever likes to cycle through a Boleyn-inspired playlist that includes Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” Demi Lovato’s “Confident” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” The two performers she most emulates onstage, however, are Miley Cyrus and Rihanna — represented in that pre-show playlist by “Wrecking Ball” and “Good Girl Gone Bad,” respectively.

“Those are two artists that, when they first broke onto the scene, they were perceived as innocent,” Lever says. “Then, as societal pressures got put on them, you see that they had this revolution. They also are cutting-edge artists that push the boundaries, which absolutely was Anne Boleyn as a ruler.”

Jane Seymour (Jasmine Forsberg)

Forsberg had just graduated from Penn State’s musical theater program in spring 2021 when she was called in to audition for Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr and Seymour. Of those four queens, she felt the role she was cast in — as Seymour, Henry’s third wife — was the biggest stretch.

“When I usually walk into an audition, I lead with a sassy energy,” Forsberg says. “But Jane Seymour is totally not like that. If anything, she is the lovable goofball of the group. What I love about Jane is she’s very, very kindhearted. And I think that idea of leading with love is what [the creative team] saw, and they did see the lovable dweeb that I have a tendency to be as well.”

When performing “Heart of Stone,” an aching, stand-by-your-man power ballad delivered in the style of Adele, Emeli Sandé and Dion, Forsberg takes a particularly personal route to channeling Seymour’s matronly affection: She thinks of her love for her own mother. “My mom,” she says, “is my best, best, best friend.”

Anna of Cleves (Olivia Donalson)

As the only star of the show who says she saw “Six” before auditioning, Donalson has the unique advantage — or burden, depending on one’s point of view — of absorbing another actress’s take on her character. On that front, Donalson decided to largely reinterpret Henry’s fourth wife and not echo Broadway star Brittney Mack’s performance.

One way Donalson put her own spin on Anna: by evoking Lizzo, a singer Marlow and Moss haven’t cited as an influence for “Get Down,” Anna’s anthem of self-love and royal opulence. Since historians say Henry rejected Anna after finding her looks not up to his standards — a notion the show shrewdly riffs on via a dating app parody — Lizzo and her mantra of body positivity proved a natural touchstone.

“I think it was written to be Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and Rihanna, but I’m giving Lizzo vibes 100 percent,” Donalson says. “There’s a lot of joy in my performance, and just a lot of celebration in who I am as a person through Lizzo.”

Katherine Howard (Didi Romero)

To learn all she could about Henry’s tragically naive fifth wife, Romero says she went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, devoured books and watched “every single documentary” she could get her hands on. That research included two sources that Farley, the associate director, provided to the cast: Antonia Fraser’s book “The Wives of Henry VIII” and Lucy Worsley’s docuseries “Secrets of the Six Wives.” (The latter’s episode titles provide a summation of the wives’ fates cited in the show: “Divorced.” “Beheaded, Died.” “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.”)

As for Howard’s number, the sultry but ominous earworm “All You Wanna Do,” Romero is channeling Britney Spears — specifically, her performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” with a snake at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards — with a dash of Ariana Grande.

“It’s a very strawberry pop song, but you really need to listen to everything that she’s saying in order to understand the ending of the song,” Romero says. “It’s not so strawberry pop at the end.”

Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo)

As a fan of “The Tudors,” the historical fiction series about Henry’s reign that aired on Showtime from 2007 to 2010, Carrillo theoretically should have felt well prepared when she was asked to audition for Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr. The only issue: She still hasn’t made it to the end of the show and, therefore, hasn’t gotten to Parr — Henry’s devoted final wife who stayed with him until his death in 1547.

So she did her own research into Parr. Asked to sum up her queen in three words for that pre-rehearsals project assigned by Farley, Carrillo recalls describing her as “religious,” “educated” and “passionate.” (Also asked to pick Parr’s favorite ice cream flavor, she landed on Earl Grey tea.) When it comes to belting “I Don’t Need Your Love,” Parr’s cathartic eleven o’clock number, Carrillo mentions Whitney Houston as one influence but says she’s mostly bringing out her inner Dion.

“She’s elegant and quirky at the same time,” Carrillo says of Parr. “She’s polished but not that polished. I think she doesn’t take herself too seriously. And in that sense, she reminds me a lot of Celine Dion.”

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