At last, a Broadway show that dares to ask “What if the People’s Princess was a hopeless twit?”
Next year will mark, improbably, 25 years since Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a horrific car accident while being chased down by aggressive photographers. Like Marilyn Monroe, another unlucky blonde who was mercilessly hounded by the press before dying too young, Diana’s image has only become more indelible in the years following her death. Also like Marilyn, lots of money has been made exploiting her, in endless bullshit attempts to tell her “true” story. Musician/lyricists David Bryan and Joe DiPietro cash in on her too with the Broadway musical Diana, filmed and presented on Netflix for our viewing “pleasure.” The producers of Dear Evan Hansen owe Bryan and DiPietro a great deal of gratitude, because Evan Hansen is no longer the worst musical of 2021.
Consider for a moment the kind of hubris that went into making an utter disaster like Diana, let alone producer Frank Marshall claiming that by showing it on Netflix first, audiences would be so delighted by it that they’d be willing to pay upwards of $200 a pop to see it live when it premieres on stage in November. Think about the unearned confidence of two American men thinking they’re the best people to write a musical play about the modern female symbol of British royalty. Diana takes such an insultingly surface approach to its complex fascinating subject that it feels like Bryan and DiPietro were grudgingly assigned it as a class project, and did most of their research on Wikipedia.
Barely depicting her life from meeting Prince Charles to immediately before her death in 1997, Diana stars Jeanna de Waal in the titular role. Wearing a wig that stubbornly refuses to stay in place, de Waal sort of looks like Diana, if you squint. Though this is a less a choice on her part than an issue with the atrocious script, de Waal plays Diana, even well into her thirties, as a petulant brat, often whining about how bored she is and chafing at her responsibilities as the future Queen-Consort of England from almost the minute she marries Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf). Charles, for his part, is an obnoxious prig who constantly looks like he smells something bad, which, to be fair, isn’t all that far off from the real Prince Charles, but still doesn’t help the overall unpleasantness of the show.
Diana hits on most of the tabloid-friendly moments in Charles and Diana’s largely unhappy fifteen year marriage — the affairs, the tell-all book, the divorce — addressing them in a series of interchangeable, wholly unmemorable songs that seem to lift heavily, intentionally or not, from 80s pop hits like Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It does such a piss-poor job of establishing any sort of dramatic stakes, or depicting Charles and Diana as happy for even just one scene, that when they do finally break up, the audience is more relieved than heartbroken. I’m ancient enough to remember a time when Charles and Diana’s marriage really was thought of as a real life fairy tale, and their fans were genuinely distraught when things started falling apart. Bryan and DiPietro cynically depict them as a disaster just waiting to happen, two awful people who had no business being together in the first place.
The most pressing issue with Diana, besides the plot, the acting, the synthesizer-heavy score, and the puerile lyrics that rhyme “having a wank” with “money in the bank,” is that it makes the baffling tactical error of focusing much of it on Camilla Parker-Bowles (played here by Erin Davie), Charles’ longtime mistress, eventual second wife, and, as the show emphasizes many, many, many, many times, his one true love. While in her frequent face-off scenes with Diana she comes off like a soap opera villainess, when she’s alone with Charles Camilla is portrayed as nothing so much as a tragically lovelorn heroine, kept apart from her man because of dusty, outdated protocols no one really understands, but insist on maintaining.
Diana’s beloved sons are barely mentioned (except in the hilarious lyric “Harry, my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none”), yet Camilla appears in no less than ten numbers, with two solos. Her relationship with Charles casts such a long shadow over the entire show that it’s even heavily suggested to be the primary reason why Diana engages in both self-injury and bulimia, a tasteless oversimplification of mental illness that inadvertently (or not) depicts her (the heroine of this debacle, let me clarify) as a childish, impetuous drama queen.
Which leads us to the obvious question: who is Diana for? Presumably it’s for people who bought the special edition Princess Diana Beanie Baby, but they might have a bit of a hard time swallowing that Queen Elizabeth maybe kinda felt a little bad about her abhorrent treatment of her, let alone that Camilla suffered too, forced to watch the man she loves marry another woman (albeit while continuing to sleep with him the whole time). While it’s true that Broadway musicals are limited in how they can depict serious matters (which makes one wonder if they should continue to try), surely they could have done more with Diana than reducing her to a series of unhappy relationships and fashionable outfits.
Her countless charitable acts are summed up at a breakneck pace in the closing song, with only a visit with AIDS patients worth more than a cursory mention. On the other hand, that scene features a man in a wheelchair singing “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell,” and making a crack about Diana’s clothes (because, y’know, gay) so maybe it’s for the best.
Enough complaining, Gena, what about the staging? Well, that stinks too. The passage of time is marked with extras rolling out some of Diana’s more noteworthy outfits on racks, and an effect in which she appears to change from one outfit into another right on stage may look neat from several hundred feet away, but is laughably clumsy up close and on TV. Only the ending (which, in a rare exercise in good taste, doesn’t feature anyone dressed like a car), when Diana turns her back to the audience and walks into a slowly fading cluster of flashbulbs, does it verge near the poignancy the whole show is striving for. This vaguely moving moment is immediately ruined when Charles, who made Diana so miserable in life, gets the last word in her death, saying “The people who will change the world are not the ones you think will change the world,” which is as backhanded a compliment as anyone has ever given to a dead person. It’s really the perfect way to end Diana, a grotesque fiasco that treats a complicated woman as a porcelain doll with no internal life, set to music.
Diana: the Musical is now playing (please, God, I beg of you, don’t do it) on Netflix.