Kevin McCollum isn’t as much of a smooth-talker as he is a hyperbolic bard for the value of theater. In person, he ends every paragraph with a resolute statement, as if to say, “There. That’s all you need to know to realize how one-of-a-kind and life-changing (fill in the blank: theater, the Twin Cities’ art scene, his newest project) is.” As the former CEO and president of the Ordway (1995-2002) and longtime Broadway stage producer (In the Heights, Rent, Avenue Q), his polish and passion make sense. When it comes to his newest production, SIX, which comes to the Ordway November 29-December 22, the production might live up to the hype.
SIX is about King Henry VIII’s wives, except everything is punched up about 100 decibels, the Tudor court is swapped out for a concert with strobe lights, and Gabriella Slade’s costumes are on par with Beyonce and Demi Lovato’s bodysuits. The women—divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived, in case you forgot—are now live. (And if you don’t believe it now, you will when they belt out the word as their opening chord.) For 80 straight minutes, each of the ex-wives gets her chance center stage to convince you why she got the worst end of the stick (or the axe, like Catherine Howard).
A Lyrical Treasure Trove
The show is built, as McCollum puts it, with a “concert vocabulary.” Writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss thought up the pop concept amid final exam season at Cambridge University, and somehow they pulled it together for the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With more than 3,390 shows spanning the 25-day festival, the duo thought that playing on King Henry VIII’s infamous wives would garner more attention. It worked, but not only because of the gimmick: The duo backed up the show with fantastically clever, lyric-dense songs meant for powerhouse voices.
Since then, SIX has done a U.K. tour, extended its preliminary 16-week run at the West End another 60-some weeks, and gone on a mini U.S. tour, with the Ordway being its last stop before heading to Broadway. In a millennial Z sort of fame, it’s the soundtrack for a TikTok meme. The highest colloquial praise it has received, though, is that it’s been called the next Hamilton. Just like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show, it has taken history and made it into modern earworms with substance and relevance.
McCollum first connected with the London producers of SIX, Kenny Wax, Wendy and Adam Barns, and George Stiles, when the show was making its first professional debut, running four Monday nights shows in the West End. (This was a year before it returned for its 16-week stint.) The London team wanted to take it to America, but they weren’t sure where to go. “I basically jumped up and down [and said pick me],” McCollum laughs.
“Everything going on that stage is about where we are right now,” McCollum says. “All these women sort of have their story told in relationship to one really bad dude in charge. Now if that doesn’t reflect today, I don’t know what does from a female standpoint. … Arts soften the emotional politics so that then politics can change.”
For as charged as McCollum’s takeaway is, SIX manages to keep its songs from being didactic, focusing on the actual characters. Each woman has a different personality that comes out through their song: Anne Boleyn is surprisingly flippant in “Don’t Lose Ur Head,” and she equates her illicit flirtation with King Henry as sliding into each other’s DMs. While her song, along with Anna of Cleves’, gets the least amount of sympathy the first time around, the more you listen to it, the more you start to flesh out her personality. Jane Seymour’s song, “Heart of Stone,” is the antithesis in tone, and the aching words paint a picture of duty and steadfast love for a relationship that’s not perfect but what she has come to accept.
Legacy and Mortality
In a way, the woman-centered, legacy-driven plot of SIX dovetails neatly into McCollum’s own values. He is a man driven by mortality. When his mother died when he was 14, he moved from Hawaii to be raised by his aunt in Illinois. (As he put it, he was raised by a strong woman, and that made him realize that “when women collectively come together, the world changes for good.”) From there, he went on to graduate from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati College in 1984, and five years later, earned his master’s degree in film producing from the notoriously competitive Peter Stark Program at the University of Southern California.
“There was a ticking clock in me,” McCollum says of his switch from being a successful actor to a producer. “My mother died when she was 40. I thought if I’m dead at 40, I only have 16 years left, and I don’t want to wait for permission anymore to do what I can do. I became interested in putting [a theatrical] family together, not just being a part of it.”
His first Broadway production was the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, which garnered four Tony nominations and one win, plus three Drama Desk nominations. That same year, his production of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 received two Tony nominations and three Drama Desk nominations, and he produced What’s Wrong with This Picture? and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice as well. Two years later, he showed America Rent, and then in the midst of his production career, he took what was originally a 22-month contract as president and CEO at the Ordway.
He was brought upon in hopes to strengthen the Ordway’s connection with Broadway (Variety reported that prior to being hired, McCollum had brought 10 Broadway productions to the Ordway in four years), and when he left, he continued the relationship. With the same enthusiasm he talks about SIX, McCollum talks about the Twin Cities’ arts ecosystem, our discerning audiences, and like a true Ordway employee, the venue’s beauty, assets, and packed-to-the-brim schedule.
“Showing up is so important, and I spent seven years here, and I was here at a very important part of my life,” McCollum says. “I had recently been divorced and I hadn’t remarried yet. I was 33 years old. The community gave me the most beautiful theater in America to run. I did well for them, and they did very well for me, too.”
If he shows his thanks with a gift like SIX (or simply likes the location stop) who are we to protest? See the six queens at the Ordway—as McCollum impressed upon me multiple times during our interview, it’s a lot cheaper than getting a ticket to Broadway.