As camp as a row of tents, Diana: The Musical, recently released as a filmed version on Netflix, is completely incongruous with what the world has come to expect of an adaptation of The People’s Princess’ life, but it’s deliciously addictive all the same.
Starring Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, and Judy Kaye
The British Royal Family have always been the subject to intense public interest. Not only are they the source and symbol of much patriotic sentiment from some Brits, but they are incredibly fascinating to an American audience. With the latest season of The Crown delving into the start of Charles and Diana’s ill-fated match, and soon-to-be-released film Spencer starring Kristen Stewart, so-called royalty porn shows no sign of dissipating just yet (so-called specifically by me). While both The Crown and Spencer both market themselves as dramas, with The Crown in particular portraying the dark reality of the royal pairing behind the picture-perfect media veneer, shining a light on Diana’s bulimia and her desperate, naive longing to be loved by Charles to a wider audience than ever before, perhaps audiences might have been expecting a musical that is similarly hard-hitting.
It is perhaps important to note the development life of this musical. While having a re-workshopping period after its 2019 run in California, its genesis goes as far back as 2017. While, for audiences, more of Diana’s gritty behind-the-scenes life has been brought to the forefront of public consciousness, from a production standpoint this almost stands before it. If viewers are expecting something that stands on the shoulders of The Crown‘s damning commentary on the ruthlessness of The Firm to who they thought was a disposable, malleable teenager, then they will be sorely disappointed. This is Broadway at its most chaotic, its most frivolous and, in many ways, its most entertaining.
Simply put, the emotional depth that some audience members expect from a musical about The People’s Princess would not be appropriate for Broadway. It would be depressing and doubtless thoroughly unwatchable. There is little chance of writers being able to explore that subject matter and do it successfully or with enough sensitivity so, wisely, they approach the story of Diana from a different angle.
Just in case you have somehow sidestepped perhaps one of the most significant royal events in recent history, and perhaps their most damning personal relations scandal, Diana tells the story of the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer as she meets Prince Charles, falls in love with him and gets married. It would almost be a perfect fairytale, if it weren’t for the fact that Charles himself is regularly seeking the company of close friend Camilla Parker-Bowles and has very little interest in Diana apart from the fact that he, as heir to the throne, needs to provide security for the future of the crown and part of that involves marriage. While being hounded by dogmatic and relentlessly unpleasant paparazzi, Diana learns that her fairytale dream is nothing but a sham, but elects to use her platform as princess to her own means, shining light on important issues and settling for the public’s adoration and love if not her husband’s. Over the course of the musical, Diana develops from a shy teenager, into reclaiming her own story to the ultimate breakdown of her marriage and freeing herself from under the suffocating grip of the Royal Family.
The story crafted by Joe DiPietro (Book and Lyrics), David Bryan (Music and Lyrics) and Christopher Ashley (Director) is one of bubblegum feminism. Diana, finding herself useless and impotent within the context of her own marriage, reclaims her own narrative in the small ways that she can. Through the way that she dressed and how she crafted a public image for herself that was far from the idea that the royals expected from her – to merely be simpering and smiling on Charles’ shoulder.
Diana boasts largely enjoyable music, which absolutely gorgeous, soaring melodies. However, despite some small moments of inspired lyrics, such as “Don’t be a martyr, why can’t you be smarter?” as well as the beautiful imagery of Diana describing being part of the royal family as a “castle of noise”, the lyrics are mostly bland and painfully literal. Numerous lines completely remove the audience from the action, such as the rather unnecessary “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank”, “I could use a prince to save me from my prince”, “Harry, my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none” as well as Diana’s raging at her “frilly, frumpy fruffles” that she is forced to wear. That’s not to mention Charles’ painfully obvious “Diana, I’m holding our son. So let me say, jolly well done!”. However, that doesn’t eliminate the fact that the tunes are irritatingly catchy, strangely stirring and simply divine to listen to.
Despite being as riotously camp as Times Square on steroids, making a spectacle out of arguably the most publicly tragic story within living memory, Diana still manages to have utmost reverence and respect for Diana and her memory. The entire story places her, rightfully, in the centre, and is incredibly damning of the actions of the royal family towards her. It is very clear that, while Charles and Camilla thought that she would be simple to mould as they choose, Diana is at an advantage for being “underestimated” and, ultimately, it was her status as a “normal” person that helped her to elevate herself beyond just her marriage. There is no mistaking who the villain of the narrative is, and that is Charles. Unlike Diana, who repeatedly tries to make their marriage work, he has no interest in the potential of their partnership and repeatedly rebuffs her.
Diana also features incredible performances. The entire ensemble are on form, in spite of some vaguely spurious attempts at British vernacular (I’m fairly confident that not a single member of the ensemble took the time to actually research a Welsh accent, for it sounds a little bit like somebody having a seizure). The choreography by Kelly Devine is dynamic and engaging, aided by elements of the staging by David Zinn.
Judy Kaye is a hoot as the Queen / Barbara Cartland, even though her second act number, while delightful, seems to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of Queen Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, as well as the extent to which Diana and the Queen could ever possibly be considered parallel characters.
Erin Davie manages to find redeeming features within Camilla. Doubtless aware that few of the audience will naturally be on her side, she still manages to find a truthfulness within Camilla’s genuine affection to Charles and why their affair continues to be ongoing.
Roe Hartrampf as Charles is the true villain of course, even though the circumstances in which he continues his affair with Camilla are far from ideal. Ultimately, it’s not necessarily the affair which is the issue, but the way that he continues to spurn, ridicule and condemn Diana for not being easily controlled by him, and for being more liked than him. He performs his part well, with his Windsor accent only occasionally dropping, and providing the perfect backdrop for Diana’s story to have a suitable level of tension.
Then there is Jeanna de Waal, who is simply a force as Diana. Every scene is played with utter conviction, as the audience charts her development from a naive, uncertain teenager, to a petulant, wronged woman to finding her own voice and purpose. de Waal displays all of these emotions and more with seeming ease, while her singing voice soars throughout. It isn’t easy to succeed with sub par material, yet she still manages to mine the emotion and the truth out of paper thin lyrics and make the character’s journey crystal clear to the audience.
In many ways, Diana is almost a parody of what a Broadway musical could be, making a spectacle and drama out of key events in Diana’s life, such as her anonymously leaking details of her and Charles’s relationship to the press, making headlines through what she’s wearing or having a showdown with Camilla at her sister’s birthday party.
It’s clear that making a balls-to-the-wall, aggressively fun musical was high on the creatives minds simply from the sheer amount of money and effort that they have put into costumes (brilliantly done by William Ivey Long). Jeanna de Waal must have shell shock from the number of quick changes she is required to do off stage. Within one musical number alone (the Act 1 closer, “Pretty, Pretty Girl”), she dons 5 different dresses, 2 of which are Drag Race-esque on-stage reveals; and that’s not even counting the body doubles that are occasionally used to showcase more of Diana’s iconic looks. Her wedding dress is beautifully recreated (a particularly impressive element of staging involves Diana crossing behind Charles and somehow ending up inside her wedding dress which, mere moments before, had been occupied by a body double. It’s these moments where one can imagine the audience bursting into shocked, passionate applause at the pure showmanship of the entire affair. Additionally featured are Diana’s iconic sweater and the Revenge Dress (which has an entire musical number dedicated to it, ending with a jubilantly proclaimed “Fuck you Dress!”).
Were this reviewer to believe in Guilty Pleasures1, this show would doubtless be one. It is manic, frenzied, downright bizarre fun. It is superbly satisfying, with Nickelodeon feminism thrown in for good measure. Diana’s post part depression and self harm flies through with little consequence, and the only reference to Diana’s eating disorder is a throwaway comment in an Act 2 number. Ultimately, the success of a show is not in what you, the audience, expected it to be (though whoever was responsible for marketing it at Netflix clearly had not watched it), nor can it be measured through the intention necessarily of the creatives themselves. A show lives or dies upon whether or not it illicits a reaction in its audience, and that’s exactly what Diana does. You truly care about Diana’s story, you are invested in her story, and, more than that, it’s just unabashed frivolity. And there is simply nothing wrong with that.
Diana: The Musical is streaming now on Netflix.
Diana reopens on Broadway for previews on November 2nd 2021, with official opening night planned for November 17th 2021. It is accepting bookings up to November 20th 2022. More information can be found here.
1Guilty Pleasures were invented by upper class snobs to define what was appropriate entertainment and what was “frothy”, unintelligent or unworthy of attention. It’s a way of legitimising particular enjoyments over others, which is a falsehood. I am guilty about nothing that I enjoy, and neither should you be.