Diana: The Musical
In 1980, a young Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal) meets Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf) and against her better judgement allows herself to get swept away in a seemingly fairytale romance. Under pressure from his mother (Judy Kaye) Charles and Diana are soon married, but a combination of Charles’ affair with Camila Parker Bowles (Erin Davie) and intense tabloid pressure from a British media that swings from adoring her to tearing her down, leaves Diana at a crossroads between self-destruction and paragon status.
One has to wonder if we’re ever going to let Diana Windsor rest. I mean, the obsession from various TV shows, films, plays and now musicals has a faint sense of the ridiculous to it: in the last eight years alone we’ve had Naomi Watts’ biopic, two different actresses in The Crown playing her, and most recently the hotly-tipped for awards Spencer with Kristen Stewart. It’s almost unhealthy really, and one suspects the very last thing that Diana herself would have wanted. Diana: The Musical is an extension of that, and I very much suspect it is one of the last thing’s that Diana herself would wanted made about her life.
I mean it is bad. A filmed performance of a musical that was stillborn on Broadway owing to COVID, presented ala Hamilton on Disney+, this is a dreadful effort to try and inject some life and pzazz into the Diana story. From the moment we are dropped, all too suddenly, into Diana singing about how lucky she is to be underestimated – a song that makes no sense in the context of where it takes place – all the way up to the show’s faltering efforts to dramatise the car crash that killed her, in Diana: The Musical we are treated to what I can only describe as a childishly insubstantial narrative of Diana’s marriage to Charles.
There’s no other way you can really look at it, not when you are treated to such lyrics as “Harry, my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none” or are introduced to James Hewitt by him entering shirtless on top of a bucking bronco or find that the production wants to wow you with 50 ways to rhyme “tart” with something. Diana: The Musical cannot decide what it wants to be, caught between being a campy, comedy-focused effort to send-up the royal family and being a serious examination of Diana, her marriage and how she dealt with having, as the second song of the show puts it, “the worst job in England”. In the first instance I actually think the show works well enough that it should have gone all in: the best example of musical theatre is the early “This Is How Your People Dance” when Diana attends some manner of orchestral concert with Charles and imagines instead attending some kind of rave, complete with Charles break-dancing. When Diana: The Musical leans in on that it’s actually rather fun, in a good/bad kind of way. But it doesn’t lean in, instead jumping from austere drama to 80’s glitter pop with abandon. I mean, we all know how this story ends, yet the show still wants us to consider the supposed wit of rhyming “Camila” with “Godzilla”.
But of course this is a story that features infidelity, mental trauma, self-harm and, you know, death, and would probably be racked over the coals if it was to get too silly. So instead Diana: The Musical jumps back and forth between the extremes, clownish and maudlin at different moments, and in its efforts to mix the two failing spectacularly: there’s no better example than the lyrics for “Snap, Click”, where a young Diana is accosted by paparazzi for the first time who proclaim “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank, snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank” even while the show attempts to portray the flashbulb assault as a serious matter. Efforts to portray Diana as a woman who eventually succeeds in breaking free of her royal curse feel fundamentally wrong given the final years of her life. The framing of things lacks a certain kind of dynamism that was present in the similar Hamilton project of 2020, with the camera failing to grasp the sense of space on the stage, and too happy for wide shots: in essence, the film is trying too hard to be an audience member and not hard enough to be a film.
It’s a musical though, so it has to live and die primarily on the quality of its songs and the quality of its singers. In this Diana: The Musical does claw back a bit of prestige, albeit never enough to make you forget about its other issues: among the better examples are “Simply Breathe” as Diana contemplates the enormity of the royal role, “She Moves In The Most Modern Ways” as she begins to chafe under the unrelenting spotlight, the showstopper “Pretty, Pretty Girl” that features a costume change I’d wager they’ll find difficult to pull off on-stage live, “The Main Event” where Diana and Camila go at it (“It’s the Thrilla in Manila but with Diana and Camilla”), “The Words Came Pouring Out” on Diana’s new willingness to slam other members of the royal family and Queen Elizabeth’s quiet refrain for a life she never had in “An Officer’s Wife”. The music is fine, the performances can be quite stirring at certain points and the choreography is nothing to criticise too much. On the other hand there isn’t anything truly exceptional about the show’s playbill, and it has a few entries – “Snap, Click”, “I Miss You Most On Sundays”, “Here Comes James Hewitt” and the show’s misfiring conclusion “If” – that swing fairly decisively the other way.
So, Hamilton this is not. A well thought out exploration of the life of Diana Windsor through song this is not. A subversive, crowd-pleasing pisstake of that most ridiculous of institutions, the British monarchy, this is not. A consistently excellent musical this is not. Instead it’s faintly idiotic, frequently poorly written, always suffering from tonal change and wears out what little welcome it had very quickly. If this was an effort to jumpstart a Broadway run, then I’m not sure that it is going to work out. This isn’t even good enough to be good/bad. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).