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It’s been three times unlucky for Six in 2020. The British musical had to close its US production on what would have been opening night, as Broadway shuttered; local outbreaks scuppered its summer drive-in tour; and, now, the second lockdown has put back its West End return.
“People keep texting me, saying ‘Are you OK?’” admits producer Kenny Wax. “But we’re resilient in this industry. I’m mainly worried for the freelance performers and staff.”
The Queens and their team were meant to start performances at London’s Lyric Theatre on November 14. “We Covid-tested 35 people last Saturday ahead of rehearsals,” reveals Wax. “People came here specially and got digs, ready to work.” But once second lockdown was confirmed, “we had to have a Zoom call on Sunday to break the bad news.”
It’s a huge blow to the Six fans, who are predominantly young and female, and who leapt at the chance to book for their returning favourite – the "herstory", pop concert-style show with catchy tunes and an empowering message.
For many, this would have been a welcome respite from traumatising disruptions to education and social life. A chance to bond with the ‘Queendom’, as fans are called, and an important contributor to young people’s fraying mental health.
As “that rare mid-sized show with a hugely popular, younger demographic, plus a fairly small company, we’re in a unique position among musicals to restart,” observes Wax. (The musical is based on the lives of Henry VIII's wives, so has just six performers, plus a small band.)
However, he found their UK return date shifting from June, to September, to November, and now the beginning of December – in theory. “Of course, we’d love to be there for Christmas,” states Wax.
It’ll be 2021, probably September or October, before they can revisit their American dream though. Wax remembers the painful near miss in March. “We had all of our office out in New York, plus friends and family – a massive English contingent supporting from the sidelines.”
But, at in a midday meeting of the Broadway League on Thursday, March 12, “the producer of the Moulin Rouge musical said someone had tested positive in their company, so they needed to cancel their matinee. Then the producer of Hamilton said ‘I have to cancel tonight – it’s just not possible to keep going’. And the whole house of cards caved in.”
That meeting was mere hours before Six’s much-anticipated Broadway opening. “Heartbreaking,” says Wax. “But we realised it’d be better to be the first show to reopen than the last show to open.”
The costs of running a Broadway production makes social distancing impossible – although it’s definitely “not a money-making scheme” for UK theatres either, stresses Wax.
Nevertheless, Nimax’s Nica Burns, owner of several West End venues that were due to reopen in November, has “put so much work into making everything Covid-safe. You won’t believe how much leg room there is now, with socially distanced rows.”
Burns has also shared the financial burden of this partial capacity model with show producers like Wax. For both, this was more about supporting staff than making a profit. “By reopening Six in London and Salford, as planned, plus our office staff, we could employ about 250 people,” explains Wax.
Getting people back to work was the impetus behind Six’s second near miss in August, when Wax partnered with Live Nation to offer a 12-city, drive-in tour.
“Six fans were immediately so supportive – we sold out,” says Wax. However, spikes in Coronavirus figures at tour stops like Liverpool, Bolton and Newcastle, and looming local lockdowns, meant that the tour was off.
“Economically, we needed to play all those dates. And we didn’t want to risk the safety of our performers or our fans.” It was a responsible but devastating decision for Wax. “I had a terrible Zoom call putting 52 people out of work.”
The Six team now aims to lead the West End comeback. This week, they were doing the ‘fit in’ at the theatre, even though the November opening date has been quashed by the second lockdown.
It was always a financial gamble, says Wax. “We paid for Covid tests, we’ve picked up the bill for those who’d taken accommodation and now can’t use it, and we spent money on advertising. Once again, we’d sold out, so the fans were with us – but we’ll have to wait a bit longer.”
The Government underwriting theatre would make an enormous difference. “We’re used to insuring with commercial underwriters – clearly, they’re not prepared to take the chance with lockdowns.”
That means the onus is on production companies to “enter this very volatile situation, knowing that all the costs we incur – paying salaries, theatre rents and charges, marketing – could be for nothing”.
Those costs are “an acceptable risk” for Six, says Wax. But he’s also planning larger-scale shows, like the Trevor Nunn-directed Identical. It’s a musical based on The Parent Trap –starring a real-life pair of identical twins. It was due to have its world premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in July 2020, and Wax now hopes it will open there in summer 2021. However, he’ll “need to raise about a million pounds from investors for that tryout, and they’ll need confidence we won’t be shut down suddenly.”
Is Wax similarly worried about Six – now planning to open on December 5 in London, and December 4 at The Lowry in Salford for the UK tour – if the second lockdown is extended? “We do worry. But this is an industry that’s used to setbacks. We’re locked down, but not knocked down!”
However, he is “very keen” to get a firm date from the Government, with sufficient notice, on when lockdown will lift. He also thinks there could be a stage ‘4.5’ on Oliver Dowden’s five-stage roadmap for theatres: somewhere between shows with financially ruinous social distancing, at stage four, and full audiences, the mythical stage five.
“If we could fill all our rows front to back, but with a single seat between each bubbled booking, that would take us from 50% capacity to more like 75% – which would encourage more producers to take the gamble,” believes Wax. “Maybe in February, if the numbers look encouraging.” Either way, “better communication, and insurance backing, from the Government would be hugely welcomed.”
For now, Wax is proud to lead the way on reopening. “I had a lovely text from Qdos Pantomimes producer Michael Harrison, saying that it was because of Six returning that he’d decided to take the plunge, and then we got the Les Misérables concert too.”
Can these Christmas shows really go ahead in December? “The Chancellor has said we can rehearse during lockdown, so we’re proceeding on the assumption that we can reopen as scheduled. It’s absolutely possible that we’ll be in rehearsal and get bad news yet again.”
But, argues Wax, “don’t we all need to make plans for Christmas – whether it’s going to shops or figuring out your festival meal, or getting just a bit of joy at the theatre?”
That would certainly be a “crowning glory”, in Six parlance, for this homegrown hit and its fans, at the end of a royally difficult year.