Film & Television

‘Diana: The Musical’: Yes, It’s That Bad

Three months ago, Princes William and Harry set aside their differences to unveil a (terribly unattractive) statue of their mother on what would have been her 60th birthday. Their recent estrangement would no doubt be heartbreaking to the late Princess Diana. But how it’s been reported, fueled, and exploited by the media would have felt painfully familiar.

This coming year will be the 25th anniversary of Diana’s terrible crash in Paris’s Pont de l’Alma tunnel. And while the public has never quite recovered from the loss of “The People’s Princess,” I fear we can expect an even greater resurgence of interest and dramatic interpretation in the coming year. As a subject, she appears to be irresistible.

Some depictions are of high quality and help us better understand the short life and tragic death of the most photographed woman in the world (The Crown, for example, as well as the upcoming festival-darling, Spencer). Some have been sensationalized in a made-for-TV movie way (The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana with Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenberg; Diana: Her True Story with Serena Scott Thomas; Princess in Love with Julie Cox).

And, alas, some are bad. Like Diana: The Musical. There’s simply no other word for it. Yes, it’s that bad. (Sorry.) 

Lest you think me cynical from the start and not giving the show its fair due, I am exactly the person for whom Diana: The Musical was created. I adored the late Princess of Wales. I took a graveyard front desk shift in the summer of 1981 so I could watch the royal wedding live on a color TV (I only had a tiny black and white set in my dorm room). I bought books about her. I subscribed to Royalty and Majesty magazines. I loitered outside Kensington Palace on my first trip to London, bought souvenirs with Lady Di’s face on them, and at one point watched a helicopter take off that someone said someone else said someone they knew said contained the Princess herself. I bought a lovely portrait doll for my coworker’s new baby, and that same coworker called the morning of August 31, 1997. I was eight and a half months pregnant, and she was worried that the news of Diana’s death might have triggered an early labor.

I’m also a musical theater fan; I grew up on it. My entire family is in show business, and I myself performed with a repertory musical theater company when I was younger. I’ve been known to subsist on ramen noodles to pay for tickets and I’ve passed many an hour online at Times Square’s TKTS booth. And, I’m not a snob about it. I enjoy crowd pleasers like Phantom of the Opera as much as the emo salute to populism Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Invariably, I can find something to love, whether it’s the staging, the performances, big ideas, brilliant lyrics, or an intoxicating score.

There isn’t much to love about Diana: The Musical. And that’s a shame, because a lot of talented people have spent quite a lot of time (and money) bringing the show to life. 

It was first staged early in 2019, directed by Christopher Ashley, at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where its run was extended twice despite mixed reviews. It went back into workshop development (not unusual for a new show) and eventually moved to Broadway in spring of 2020. Unfortunately, it closed shortly after previews started, and before officially opening, when all of Broadway was shuttered due to Covid. That summer, the production was filmed for Netflix onstage at the Longacre Theatre, but with no audience. It’s available to stream now.

The story is familiar, of course. It’s about a starry-eyed ordinary young girl (ordinary if you happen to have grown up on a 13,000-acre estate in a 90-room manor house with the title “Lady” in front of your name). She falls in love with a relatively handsome prince, marries into a demanding and difficult family, suffers at their hands, finds the strength to leave, becomes a famous and beloved philanthropist, and dies at age 36 leaving a hole in the heart of her two sons and the general populace. It’s a compelling story. In fact, it’s rather ironic that this drama that played out in real life has been so difficult to capture in drama.

Diana: The Musical tells Diana Spencer’s story almost as simplistically as I did above. It doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know; it doesn’t even try. Diana is good. Charles, Elizabeth, and Camilla — especially Camilla — are bad. So are the paparazzi, who wear Dick Tracy-era trench coats and fedoras and stalk our heroine with a near constant barrage of personal questions and flashbulbs. The lady pursued by the mob and eventually using them to her advantage evokes memories of Evita, but there is a huge and insurmountable difference. Evita benefitted from the lyrics of Tim Rice. Diana doesn’t.

If the story is simply trite, the songs are hackneyed beyond anything I have ever seen or heard onstage. David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (the Tony-winning team from Memphis) are inordinately fond of couplets. Here are some choice examples:

(The Queen commenting on Charles’s womanizing)

“It was all right when you were new/But Charles, now you’re 32.”

(The press hounding Diana)

“We know that your aim is/To be friggin’ famous.”

(Dana cradling her second child)
“Harry, my ginger-haired son/You’ll always be second to none.”

(An AIDS patient meeting Princess Diana)

“I’m unwell/But I’m handsome as hell.”

That last one is not only puerile but borderline offensive. Songs range from the obvious: “Once Upon a Time” and “Whatever Love Means Anyway” to the ridiculous “The Thrilla in Manilla with Diana and Camilla.” (No, I’m not kidding.) Diana’s lover James Hewitt enters shirtless on a “horse.” Camilla longs for a “Lifetime of Sundays” with Charles. Diana’s butler Paul advises her to wear a “F*** You Dress.” And Elizabeth remembers the joys and woes of being “An Officer’s Wife.” Taken only a bit more to extreme, Diana: The Musical could be a darkly brilliant farce. Unfortunately, it takes itself painfully seriously.

The fault is not in the performers, who truly give the mediocre material their all. Jeanna de Waal, who as Diana is onstage about 90 percent of the time, has a lovely voice. Tony-winner Judy Kaye would make a marvelous Elizabeth if the text weren’t so inadequate. Roe Hartrampf and Erin Davie are fine as Charles and Camilla. The staging and choreography (Kelly Devine) are predictable, but serviceable. The costumes (by multi-Tony winner William Ivey Long), while gorgeous, are mainly a two-hour recreation of the real-life Diana’s fashion greatest hits. I sincerely doubt that anyone who makes it through Diana: The Musical on Netflix will be willing to pay $100 or more for a ticket to the live show. The strategy (inspired perhaps by Hamilton’s availability on Disney+) may have backfired irrevocably.

Diana will preview in early November and open mid-month. In all fairness, Netflix filmed it more than a year ago, and it may have improved — I certainly hope so for the sake of its cast and crew. But, for now, it seems to be yet another example of people shamelessly making money off the memory of a real woman in a terribly sad situation trying to do and be the best she could.

Maybe it’s time we let her rest in peace.

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