Nearly a quarter-century ago, Princess Diana died trying to out-race a swarm of paparazzi. Though many blamed the media for that tragedy, the tabloidification of her life story continues to this day, this time with that most bloated form of homage: the Broadway musical.
Filmed in an empty theater last fall but bursting with the kind of broad, feel-good energy that typically packs the house with tourists in non-COVID times, “Diana: The Musical” brings “the people’s princess” directly to the people, in their homes, all but canonizing Diana as a feminist icon and saint in the process. (Seriously, how many words can one show rhyme with “martyr”?) With music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and lyrics co-written by Bryan and book writer Joe DiPietro (the duo behind 2010 Tony winner “Memphis”), the project rides a fresh wave of Diana-mania: a kitsch stage tribute to balance the more critical/cynical takes still popping like so many flashbulbs around the late icon.
Available exclusively on Netflix, “Diana: The Musical” joins season four of “The Crown,” in which the Princess of Wales figures prominently, and offers a more cuddly portrait of Diana than Kristen Stewart does in upcoming art-house offering “Spencer,” from “Jackie” director Pablo Larraín. Had the pandemic never happened, this project might have offered a broad introduction to the character: “Diana” was in previews when Broadway went dark in March 2020 and was set to open at the end of that month.
For younger audiences and those with only a passing interest in Diana, this might well be the place to start, serving up a fairly vanilla princess story — à la Romy Schneider classic “Sissi” — that turns tragic without getting too bogged down in particulars. (For example, unlike “Spencer” and “The Crown,” “Diana” never depicts its glamorous subject bent over a toilet bowl, whereas the other two focus more heavily on her self-harm.) Diana stans are all in a tizzy on Twitter, questioning the show’s very existence, though drag queens and cabaret performers have been doing far tackier impressions of Diana for decades, demonstrating that satire often proves far more effective than reverence.
We meet Diana (played by Jeanna de Waal as a beaming young woman in a layered blond wig) while she is still working as a nursery teacher, having grown up with posters of Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf) on her walls. She’s pure and perfectly oblivious to the royal machinations that make her “seemingly the perfect girl,” in the eyes of the pragmatic Queen (Judy Kaye), “for the worst job in England,” in the words of Elizabeth’s singing servants.
That’s pretty much the same conclusion reached by all of the revisionist histories: Diana was miserable, they acknowledge, but her match to the Duke of Wales was an “arrangement” and a “job.” (One day, someone will write a Katie Holmes musical, and let’s hope it’s dishier than this.) Woe unto the lass — especially one from the house of Spencer, as she should have known better — who failed to recognize that fairy-tale fantasies and L-O-V-E played no part in the deal. Her ill-fated union was all about D-U-T-Y, and in many respects, she excelled at it, forging a connection with the public the other royals never could.
Rather than attempting to mirror Diana’s 19-year-old naivete, the musical spotlights the machinations that led to her wedding from the Windsors’ point of view, as Charles and his true love, the already-married Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie), hand-pick Diana to be his bride. These scenes — which find Charles and Camilla canoodling together in their dressing gowns, while the prince phones Diana to arrange a date — are a bit heavy-handed, and yet the dynamic seems reasonably accurate. Though Charles has claimed that his marriage was sincere in its early years, he publicly admitted to his affair with Camilla (but only after the release of that infamous phone recording, when Charles joked about becoming a Tampax so he might be closer to Camilla).
“Diana: The Musical” walks a fine line between reenacting the more widely publicized moments in Charles and Diana’s marriage — such as the Royal Ballet Gala where she surprised him by dancing to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” — and dipping too far into tabloid gossip. Even so, the playful “Here Comes James Hewitt” number celebrates Diana’s affair with her studly riding instructor.
Such is the paradox of the Princess Di chronicles: Her popularity coincided with a late-20th-century shift in how news outlets covered celebrity, as papers barely legitimate enough to wrap fish and chips with paid inside sources to spill about the royals’ personal drama (the Fergie phenomenon was a lower-tier example of same). Back then, the public had an insatiable appetite for all things Diana, and the tawdry coverage made them feel like they knew everything. Diana recognized that power, turning the media’s attention toward causes she cared about, like visiting AIDS patients in hospital and former conflict zones still littered with landmines.
Still, the one-dimensionality of this portrayal reveals how little we truly understood about the woman’s inner world. Gaps left by tabloids were filled in part by Andrew Morton’s controversial biography, based largely on input from Diana herself — a process depicted here in the show’s catchiest song, “The Words Came Pouring Out.” But so many secrets remain unrevealed, and the rest relies heavily on speculation. Diana’s divorce was considerably more complicated than Bryan and DiPietro make it out to be, and she dies abruptly one song later — not “Candle in the Wind,” alas.
Experiencing the musical on screen makes “Diana” feel all the more inadequate, since closeups call for a more nuanced performance than de Waal is prepared to give. (Contrast this with Kristin Stewart, who conveys volumes with each microexpression, and de Waal’s Diana comes off feeling like a Disney cartoon.) Even without the energy of a live audience to invigorate it, the Netflix production improves upon the quick-cut, random-camera-placement approach of last year’s “Hamilton” movie.
Here, director Christopher Ashley uses the more conventional idea of “coverage,” alternating between angles with the elegance of a well-produced TV special. David Zinn’s relatively understated sets serve to represent the gates around Buckingham Palace, flipping sides to indicate whether Diana is “in” or “out” at any given time. The editors go wide when necessary to capture Kelly Devine’s choreography, and push in for the dramatic bits. It’s all staged proscenium style, of course, with the characters facing out to an empty house, but we come away with a better sense of the show — if not necessarily of Diana herself — than the in-person alternative.