That’s right everyone, we really did make three of our writers sit down and watch Netflix’s new offering of the Broadway production of Diana: The Musical. The tragic life of the Princess of Wales has been given a new look as a shiny American stage show, complete with musical numbers by a member of Bon Jovi. Did it go about as well as you’re thinking it did, or is this a surprise gem? Only one way to find out…
I’ll be honest with you. I had high expectations for Diana: The Musical. Maybe that’s because I’m not a musical theatre person and so have no idea what I’m talking about. Regardless, I was genuinely intrigued by the concept of a musical (read: flashing lights, big beautiful, booming voices, frivolity in all its forms) about Diana, the famously kind, quiet and reluctant member of the royal family. So it hurts me to say that the second the starting note for the first song, “Underestimated”, kicked in, I was instantly hit with disappointment.
Ten minutes in and that disappointment had transformed into the physical need to cringe so badly that I resorted to hiding my face in a pillow. To call it a nightmare may sound like a bit of an overreaction, granted, but the cringe factor was so strangely specific and painful, that to call these two hours of my life a ‘nightmare’ feels quite fitting. This was like watching a fever dream try to disguise itself as a peaceful daydream about a lake, or some other unmoving, nice thing. AKA, a nightmare.
The main culprit for me, besides the blatantly cringy language (Diana speaking the word ‘slay’ made me have to fight the urge to go and stick my own head down the toilet) is how strangely static and sterile the whole thing felt, whilst managing to feel extremely garish at the same time. That takes talent. The lack of movement, like in the opening number again, where Diana sings an entire song standing in one place feels like a good depiction of how Diana was trapped by her circumstances, but then, pray tell, why not just make an *ahem* film about it? At least with meaningful silences (and more importantly, no live audience) stillness is encouraged and can resonate deeply with the viewer as evidence of an emotional shift or “eureka” moment. But when you choose to place that stillness on a Broadway stage, saturated by stage lights and brightly coloured outfits, the beauty of that stillness contorts into something quite lifeless and insignificant.
Even when Diana’s forced stillness and her desire to move freely are juxtaposed on stage, it feels like the director is trying to compensate for something and just failing, miserably. I’m thinking of when Diana’s sat listening to a cello recital and then the staff behind her break into dance (‘This is how your people dance!’) and then before you can say ‘Please for the love of God take that wig off’ Diana’s dress has transformed into some strange wedding dress ensemble and she’s “playing” the cello (pulling the bow back and forth across the strings in the same place over and over). Fever dream!
All that being said, I still appreciate that someone was passionate enough about this concept to get it to Broadway. As someone who was born after her death, my notion of Diana is built up mainly from recent iterations of her in pop culture: Emma Corrin’s portrayal in The Crown, Naomi Watts’ in Diana, and most recently, Kristen Stewart in the upcoming film Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín.
Whilst I find these other interpretations to be much more introspectively substantive and interesting, the concept of making a musical about Diana’s life, whilst missing out on the potential for satirical brilliance, is one that Diana herself would probably found truly touching, if not just simply hilarious.
Diana – the recent musical adaptation of the late Princess Diana’s life that landed on Netflix last Friday – saw two very conflicting worlds colliding. I absolutely love a musical, even some not very good ones. I absolutely love The Crown. I am absolutely indifferent about the actual royal family.
Though I started my Diana: The Musical journey with an open mind, I was incredibly sceptical from the word go. Despite my own relative indifference, this adaptation still aims to present the terribly tragic and unnecessary demise of a young woman – events that happened well within living memory – in an arguably light hearted medium. This is not to say that every musical is light hearted; a well written one can be an impressively emotional and compelling watch. Unfortunately, this is not a well written one.
The musical’s story begins in 2019 as an off-Broadway production, before making it to Broadway the following year. The small matter of a pandemic set its official opening back to December 2021, with the film of the stage production being performed in an empty theatre. Creators David Bryan and Joe DiPietro do have a Tony under their belts, won in 2010 for their musical Memphis. I can’t say I’m familiar with it, but I can say I’m slightly shocked based on the quality of Diana’s book and lyrics.
If I had to describe Diana: The Musical in as few words as possible, the phrase ‘high school production’ immediately springs to mind. The lyrics are simplistic at best and serve to hurry along a plot that moves so quickly, I’m sure I now have mild whiplash. While it made a fun game for myself and the two unsuspecting friends I made sit down with me, being able to accurately guess the following lines of most of the songs isn’t a sign of particularly sophisticated writing. I think mostly it’s a sign of a desperation to force the chaos of a life of exceptional events into the perfected uniformity of rhyming couplets.
There were many disorienting moments of Diana: The Musical, however perhaps the least surprising element of the whole thing was that it is very much an American adaptation, with a capital ‘A’. I am fascinated by the royalist mentality in the States and have no doubt that the strange separation that the Atlantic Ocean and a Revolution has provided is what has made this an acceptable adaptation to those over the pond.
The second word that springs to mind in relation to Diana: The Musical is camp. Oh my, it is unavoidably camp. I remain incredibly torn about how exactly I feel about this musical adventure. If it took itself less seriously, it could be hilarious. Some of the costumes are relatively impressive, the singing really isn’t that bad, and the speed of the plot means I was never bored at least. In that sense, I had fun. Its downfall, however, is that it does seem to take itself seriously, and so risks trivialising tragic events that are scarily mirrored in the experiences of the women of the royal family still 20 odd years later.
I am left with many conflicting and incoherent thoughts, and many questions. Answers on a postcard, particularly regarding why Barbara Cartland features so heavily, please…
Filmed at Broadway’s audience-less Longacre Theatre, it won’t be the last time this cast will perform to empty seats. Even James Corden would’ve passed on this one. This clumsy, unnecessary, and exploitative trip down memory lane isn’t as revelatory, clever, deep, or funny (at least not intentionally) as it thinks. It comes across as a soul-less attempt to revive the market in mourning. Writer Joe DiPietro’s heavy handed approach is made worse by risible songs from Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, here giving musicals, not love, a bad name.
It’s tone-deaf. With women’s safety dominating the news, lines about the good old days when you could lop a difficult wife’s head off, or Charles telling a dancing Diana, “how about for a start, don’t act like a tart,” need cutting. The number with butler Paul goading Diana into upstaging Charles’ TV interview by hitting the town in a ‘f**k you dress’ beggars belief.
I had very little left after Dame Barbara Cartland reappeared in full Fairy Godmother mode, replete with double-entendres to the camera. She introduces a shirtless, jodhpur wearing James Hewitt, who rises through the floor atop a bucking bronco. It makes King Herod’s Song in Jesus Christ Superstar seem subtle. An AIDS number too? A dying man sings “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell”. Really?
The whole rhyming thing – and whether to sing everything or just bits – was distracting. “Harry my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none”. Or posh partygoers watching Diana and Camilla circle each other singing “nights like this, I envy the poor, their parties can’t possibly be such a bore”. It works for a bit but just ends up, well… The latter number reminded me of Sharpay versus her understudy at the end of High School Musical: Senior Year.
In a moment of fourth-wall breaking honesty, the ensemble sing “can we survive this royal horror show?” Stick to the shadows at the back and you might, but I’d still sack your agent.
Props though. They work their bums off, quickly switching from footmen, hangers-on and Di’s / Charles’ family members to heartless paps and scruffily dressed Welsh commoners who look like they’ve been allowed owt ta pit for day to be blessed by their betters. All while trying to keep up with Diana, who gets her daily steps in by covering the stage like a corgi looking for somewhere to do its business, stopping only to stare intently into the middle distance and sing about how “insert emotion here” she is.
Diana looks more like Hilary Clinton with a bit of Kirsty Wark thrown in. There’s lots of wistful looks, hand wringing, twee views of English life as imagined by Americans. The songs are forgettable despite the ambitious staging. But they’re sung with gusto to be fair. It seems like a spoof, secretly concocted by Andrew Lloyd Webber to relinquish Cats of its title of worst musical made film. If only.
The closest I came to really feeling something was the closing number. Diana sings about what she’ll do once free of the company, with us knowing she’ll never get that chance. The reaction I then felt was of being manipulated. Diana: The Musical may live on as a guilty pleasure. Something the next generation of Bridget Jones’ will watch post break-up or as a Eurovision style celebration with people dressing as the characters.
As the ensemble sings; “and all you sods can’t get enough, we don’t say you’re to blame, then again you fan the flame, have you no shame?”
Prove them wrong, watch something else.
Diana: The Musical is available to stream on Netflix now.