A funny thing happened on the way to Netflix for the musical ‘Diana.’ The company of the show, which had a rackety premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2019, appears to have boned up on ‘The Crown.’
The musical, which is streaming ahead of its Broadway premiere in November, is still a crassly commercial noise machine. But the ensemble has grown a touch more dignified. The characters have been flecked with a few human lineaments.
Jeanna de Waal, who stars as a gullible but quick learning Diana, and Roe Hartrampf, who plays a bratty playboy Prince Charles, are more plausible as the mismatched royal couple. In La Jolla, they seemed to be impersonating cartoons. Now they’re cartoons with ambiguous smiles and furrowed brows.
For those encountering this theme park musical for the first time, it might strain credulity to hear that the show has actually improved. But the fundamental flaw of ‘Diana’ — the glaring disconnect between story and score — remains unchanged by these cosmetic refinements.
The book by Joe DiPietro and the music by David Bryan (the team behind the Tony-winning musical ‘Memphis’) still have their insoluble problems. Together, they compound each other’s faults — nowhere more so than in the co-written lyrics, which may be the worst I’ve heard in a theatre.
The plot is a string of Wikipedia moments in the Princess Diana saga. From her courtship with Charles and their fairy tale wedding to the collapse of the marriage, her escape from her royal prison and eventual tragic death, the tale is repackaged as it might be for a pop-up book on the royal family, everything writ so large that even Ryan Murphy might be moved to decry the lack of subtlety.
The songs, composed in the cheesiest Broadway rock, recycle tropes of Diana’s story with little fresh perspective. Bryan, Bon Jovi’s keyboardist, jeopardises his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame standing with a score that even on second encounter I had to repeatedly ask myself, “Is this really happening?”
Diana humble-brags that she’s “underestimated” in the opening number, and indeed the naive kindergarten teacher’s assistant from aristocratic British stock will prove a surprisingly formidable opponent in the Machiavellian court. But the musical, performed on a darkened stage with flashy Las Vegas lighting effects under the direction of Christopher Ashley, exploits Diana’s story with the same mercenary glee as the tabloid vultures who tracked her every move when she was alive.
The paparazzi are portrayed as a lascivious swarm of trench coat-wearing men. One of them sings, “Snap, click/snap, click/give a smile/the prince will enjoy you/at least for a while.” In this dental drill of a tune, the “snap, click” is inanely repeated, with fresh insults added that point out not so much the nightmarish side of fame as the sorry state of Broadway songwriting.
Erin Davie cuts a diabolically haughty figure as the ubiquitous Camilla Parker Bowles. The love of Charles’ life, she is a wily manipulator styled like a 1980s evening soap opera villain but cannily underplayed by Davie.
Diana confesses that she’d like to “sock” Camilla, and who could blame her? But the number that contains this aside otherwise revolves around her cluelessness. Bored to death on a classical music date with the prince, she wonders if she will be able to turn her future husband into a “rocker.” (Certainly not with the ersatz tune she’s growling out.)
As Queen Elizabeth, Judy Kaye — a treasure of American musical theatre — is more direct in her realpolitik than Olivia Colman’s more discreet version of the character on ‘The Crown.’ In conference with Charles and Diana about their careening marriage, the queen expresses a twinge of nostalgia for the old days when a defiant princess would simply have had her head chopped off.
Kaye also plays prolific romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who in addition to dispensing earthy wisdom to Diana provides an outlet for unmitigated camp. She encourages the dissatisfied princess to enjoy a little military beefcake on the side, a piece of advice that gives way to the Chippendales-worthy entrance of James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). The musical, by this point, has no shame left to lose.
Diana, as her would-be puppet masters come to learn, has tricks not only in her bed but also up her sleeve. The media, initially her enemy, are deployed as a weapon of self-defense. She takes ownership of her image, dazzling the public in flamboyant couture and bravely becoming a pioneer in the AIDS cause in those early days when gay men with the disease were shunned and stigmatised.
There’s a reason Diana’s story has for so long captured the world’s fancy, but the musical theater imagination at work is not up to the challenge of retelling the tale. There were lyrics so deranged I felt compelled to jot them down, almost like a psychiatrist keeping a log of a patient’s more unhinged utterances.
Did DiPietro and Bryan really rhyme “Diana and Camilla” with “thrilla in Manila?” Does Diana actually sing the words: “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio?” Yes and yes — and please don’t ask about the expletives in the the song ‘The Dress.’
‘Diana’ clarified for me why some people not only hate musicals but also loathe those who unabashedly do. The show, which was supposed to have opened last year but was forced to close in previews because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been generically devised to draw in the tourist hordes. (Ashley, who seems never to have met a Broadway-bound musical he didn’t want to shepherd, had better luck with his recent live-capture of ‘Come From Away,’ a show with infinitely more heart.)
Artistically, ‘Diana’ is soulless. The raison d’etre seems to be to make money. The streaming of a filmed performance before the production even opens on Broadway is an unusual marketing strategy that perhaps intends to get ahead of what will likely be punishing reviews.
Let’s hope the tactic fails — not out of any malice but out of the hope that producers won’t be rewarded for shamelessly sticking with schlock.
During the long pandemic pause, Broadway has been forced to confront not only its dismal record on race but also its checkered history on the rights and dignity of its workers. Cluttering the space with commercial mediocrity sadly suggests a return to business as usual.
For this reason, ‘Diana’ isn’t just bad but dangerous. The musical deserves to disappear in the detritus of Netflix.
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‘Diana: The Musical’ is streaming now on Netflix