There’s something almost inevitable about the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, being turned into a bombastic Broadway musical.
Diana’s all-too-short life is already the fodder for tell-all books, a number one song, made-for-TV movies, countless TV specials, the fourth and upcoming fifth season of Netflix’s Emmy-winning series The Crown and the soon-to-be-released movie Spencer starring Kristen Stewart as Diana (not to be confused with the 2013 movie starring Naomi Watts as the princess). It’s not a surprise that her tragic story would come to Broadway. A two-act musical with sleight of hand costume changes, meticulously recreated wardrobes and snazzy choreography is, in many ways, the last stone unturned.
In development since February 2019, Diana: The Musical was in previews on Broadway and set to open on March 31, 2020. Of course, Broadway shut down and the show’s final performance was on March 12, 2020. Perhaps fearing that their production would never resume in front of a live audience, the cast—headlined by Jeanna de Waal as Diana, Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles and Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth—reconvened September 2020 at the Longacre Theatre to film the stage version. Diana: The Musical premiered on Netflix last Friday and the reviews, to put it mildly, have not been kind. The Guardian called it “the year’s most hysterically awful hate watch.” I don’t hate to watch it as much as I hate that it happened at all. It truly feels like one more thing getting a piece of her.
I’m not sure if there’s a great way to bring Diana musically to life but this definitely wasn’t it. Directed by Christopher Ashley, Diana: The Musical is a familiar (derivative?) pop-rock Broadway show. It’s not breaking new ground like Hamilton or tackling a difficult subject with nuance like Come From Away (also directed by Ashley, who shows far less grace with Diana).
We don’t learn anything new about Diana. Her life is reduced to one-dimensional musical headlines. We don’t get any big “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” number. The lyrics are laughably simplistic: “A fairy tale born in hell” and “I could use a prince to save me of my prince” aren’t exactly subtle. The dialogue is even more overt.
“I’m not even the most desirable woman in my own marriage,” Diana says. “All you’ve ever done is marry me,” Charles spits out in one fight.
No musical can really delve that deeply into its subjects. But Diana: The Musical brushes broad strokes over it all. Clearly bulimia, postpartum depression and self-harm aren’t song-and-dance material, and there’s something so troubling about “Happiness / Simply Breathe” which glosses over so many of Diana’s problems. The song covers her telling Charles she’s pregnant, the birth of her two sons, her not eating, and her ultimately punching a mirror and cutting herself. “How does one survive when it hurts to be alive?” she sings. The show never answers that plaintive question. The number ends with her in a hospital bed, reading a magazine and glibly exchanging one-liners with her sister Sarah (Holly Ann Butler). “If you ask me you’re just doing all this to get your husband’s attention,” Sarah says. Not a great way to refer to mental health problems. The scene ends with Diana telling Charles she wants to get more involved with charity work, and that’s that.
The second act, which finds Diana coming into her own, is worse. A song entitled “The Main Event,” which features Diana confronting Camilla actually, heaven help us, features the lyrics “thrilla in Manila with Diana and Camilla.” In “Here Comes James Hewitt,” the man who would become Diana’s lover sings “Ladies if your life has gone off course, you don’t need no messy divorce, all you need is a man on a horse.” I promise you I am not making these lyrics up. Did I watch a Saturday Night Live sketch by mistake? Somebody save me. It’s hard to understand how writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan thought these lyrics were a good idea.
Andrew Morton wrote the infamous Diana, Her True Story and betrayed her confidence after her death by releasing their taped conversations. Diana’s decision to confide in him is covered in an upbeat duet entitled “The Words Came Pouring Out.” It’s truly bizarre.
Maybe this pedestrian approach was on purpose. It’s the kind of Broadway show “real” theatergoers will dismiss as being too common, too bourgeois, too “of the people”—which, in an odd way, could have made it the perfect vehicle to tell Diana’s story. She was the People’s Princess, after all.
Perhaps I feel a stronger sense of kinship with Diana than those younger than me. When she died on August 31, 1997, my roommate came home to find me glued to the television with tears in my eyes. She was shocked that I was so consumed by Diana’s sudden and tragic death. “I’ve never given much thought to the royals,” she confessed.
But I am of the generation who has given them a lot of thought. I woke up early on the morning of July 29, 1981 to watch Lady Di walk down the aisle to marry Prince Charles and become a princess. As a child I thought it was a fairy tale come to life. As an adult, now older than Diana was when she died, I cannot fathom how much she had to endure.
But here we are, almost a quarter of a century after her death, and people are still profiting from it. It doesn’t seem like we have learned anything. The media is still inexcusably hard on female celebrities. Britney Spears is fighting for independence from her father. Lindsay Lohan. Simone Biles. The list is truly endless. Lifetime has already produced three Meghan Markle movies. Watching how the British press treats Meghan Markle is watching history repeat itself with a racist twist. Will Meghan be the subject of a bad musical 25 years from now? I can already think up the lyrics. “Their lives had become kind of scary / So they stayed in the house of Tyler Perry.”
Diana: The Musical is now set to debut on Broadway November 17, with previews beginning November 2. I’d like to think that the filmed version’s poor reception might squash those plans (How lucky were they that there was no audience when they taped this trainwreck?), but that’s not usually how these things work. The show will open and a whole news cycle on her life and the musical’s reception will begin. Death has brought Diana no peace. I have to wonder: Will we ever leave Diana alone?
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).