‘Diana: The Musical’ Is a Bonkers Mess, and a Crazy Circus of Truths
“Diana: The Musical” on Broadway is in many ways terrible, but it also reveals the cycle of manipulation and need that embraces not just the royals and media, but also the public.
The best heckle so far of the post-pandemic Broadway era happened last Friday night, when Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf) snarled at Princess Diana (Jeanna de Waal), “All you’ve ever done is marry me” during the shamelessly bonkers, somewhat terrible, and utterly mesmerizing Diana: The Musical (Longacre Theatre, booking to November 2022).
The silence and a few shocked sighs that followed were broken by a lone male voice from the audience.
“Fuck off!” this voice from the dark said straight at Prince Charles, earning a smattering of applause and laughs.
And who can blame that heckler? It’s odd that the royal family has gotten so steamed up about their presentation in The Crown, when Diana: The Musical has so far escaped their ire. If you think The Crown is merciless, the musical really tears into the institution as a bunch of viperish gaslighters, unable to understand or control Diana. It makes Charles into the ultimate villain of the breakdown of their marriage, and the queen into an unfeeling ice-cube—and the character that gets the most ridiculous song of the entire show.
The Crown is a thousand times more nuanced than Diana: The Musical, which decides to make royal life into a loopy soft rock history lesson that takes itself way seriously until it doesn’t, and then basically does the equivalent of the can-can in neon bloomers.
Yet it keeps its wits about it. Alongside the usual villains (Charles, the royals, the media), the musical also intelligently implicates the appetites of the public in the making and breaking of Diana—the yearning for fairytales, the ridiculous expectations and hero worship that followed.
The recent Kristen Stewart movie, Spencer, presents the travails of Diana as a Grand Guignol horror story; Diana: The Musical cannot decide if it’s a searing indictment or a wink-wink satire. It also can’t decide if it’s camp or playing it straight. In the end, it hews closer to that other great British art form, pantomime.
The heckling was perfectly in line with what has happening on stage—which was extremely confusing, but totally playing to its audience. The musical is also opening with a serious controversy around it; its costume designer, the well-known William Ivey Long, is at the center of a number of sexual assault allegations, as reported by NPR.
In Diana: The Musical’s reading, Diana is both victim and hero, helpless prisoner and liberation avatar. She is, as the title of the first song goes, “Underestimated.” The royal family thinks they have a decorative, baby-producing girl-mouse, and at the beginning they do. Over and over again, Diana says she loves Charles, and cannot understand his coldness. But right in front of us, his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie doing stoic, thankless stage work) is ongoing, and they both congratulate themselves on choosing such a brilliant princess for him to win the public over and birth the future king.
Camilla and Charles think they are in control. But Diana’s popularity becomes intoxicating to the public; the mouse starts to roar as Frankenstein’s monster escapes the operating table and discovers shoulder-pads. To seal her transition to self-determined player, Diana: The Musical has her parading a bunch of nicer frocks than the early 1980’s inoffensive Sloaney, flowery ones she wore. The audience goes wild.
The night this critic saw it, it was filled with the Diana-faithful. Whatever the critics say, maybe that dedicated audience will be enough to sustain it, and continue to happily heckle Charles.
This musical is truly awful and truly nuts, but—intentionally or not—it neatly reflects straight back to the audience the cartoon and circus the royal family has become both in the eyes of the world, and in the world’s own making. De Waal appears before us in front of a wall of flashing lights, and exits the same way—in the glare of the paparazzi. But the paparazzi aren’t the villains here; they are merely fulfilling their editors’ and audience’s desire to see pictures and get the story. As the musical makes clear, the royal family —a fusty institution desperate for an injection of glamor—needed Diana too. Eventually Diana recognizes her own power, and uses the media for her own ends.
The musical has been universally derided (thanks to an early screening on Netflix), and may be derided even more by New York’s theater critics, but more than any Diana-related cultural product, it makes clear that every player got something from this ridiculous situation, and so the playing of the game became the intrigue. The musical sketches, albeit with an absurdly extreme lack of subtlety, a co-dependent chain of neglect and manipulation, the power ultimately resting with the press and the monarchy. Whatever globe-conquering charisma and charm Diana had was ultimately no match for either.
However, that’s all a bit of a downer, and Diana: The Musical wants everything many ways, and so as well as being villains Charles and Camilla are also star-crossed lovers, who have a ludicrous song about their affair with a repeated, staring-at-the-rafters riff about dreaming of “Sunday afternoons,” which as any human knows are a time to get quietly wrecked on Mimosas, or watch Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives marathons, not yearn for extra-marital nookie. The second act begins with a half-naked, muscular James Hewitt, who Diana had an affair with, and who the musical sketches first as a stud straight from a Jilly Cooper novel, and then as an inert, indecisive drip.
None other of Diana’s supposed beaus are included. Where the hell are they? Where is Princess Margaret? Princess Anne? William? Harry? Prince Philip? The queen mother? Prince Andrew? Prince Edward?
It’s so weird they are all missing, when so much more fun could be added with them in it. Instead, some neat jibes and observations come from Diana’s step grandmother, the romance novelist Barbara Cartland, decked out in pink as she habitually was, her hair a flaring cloud.
The musical sketches moments that happened, and grafts its dirge-like songs to them with such terrible rhyming couplets that your body may well fold in on itself in agony. It builds to crescendos of drama, and then more than once completely screws up the crescendo.
For example, Diana really did come face to face with Camilla at a party years into her marriage to Charles, their extramarital affair having been conducted in secret in the homes of their friends. By the point, we have watched Diana literally locked behind the jail-like gates of the palace, we have seen Charles constantly demean her, Camilla laugh at her naiveté, and the queen clueless as to what to do with her. And so this confrontation should be fireworks. But instead they circle each other, and… well it’s a bloody awful song, with no tension or zingers. It just collapses in on itself.
The musical does this most fatally at the end. Diana’s death is imagined, and then—well, a group of the company walk forward, and look out at us, and that’s it. It’s such a terrible ending the audience waits, because it feels so not-an-ending. But that really is it. A few minutes before the queen has a song, “An Officer’s Wife,” which is set around her and Philip’s time when he was stationed in Malta at the beginning of their marriage. The reality of this moment in their lives was that it was a time of happiness before the queen’s life of duty, but in the musical it is where she… well, I have really no idea, I think learned to love order and marching.
There is so much nonsense on stage, it’s like approaching an oasis in a desert when it gets a moment utterly, perfectly right, as with “The Dress,” which animates the moment Diana decided to blow Charles off the front pages by wearing the famous Christina Stambolian black cocktail dress to a function at the Serpentine Gallery, just as he was confessing his adultery on national television. Diana, her butler Paul Burrell (Anthony Murphy) let rip with a repeated refrain of a “fuckity fuckity fuckity fuck you dress!” as they plot her move, and it’s a genuine, mischievous delight.
Another moment, when Diana connects, and is photographed holding the hands of AIDS patients is also sensitively written and sung—and rightly places their and her bravery on an equalizing par.
The manically broad brushstrokes of the musical generally work against such moments of nuance. It’s weird to include the revenge dress moment, and not Diana’s own primetime Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, which remains shrouded in controversy today. Such omissions serve to highlight a destabilizing identity crisis at the heart of the musical itself—comedy or drama, she a hero/she a victim, Charles a villain/Charles and Camilla the real love story/Charles and Camilla the puppeteers.
It is one thing to have contradictions within characters, but Diana: The Musical fails because it neglects to map these contradictions. And what the hell is it supposed to be? Serious or camp? It laughs at itself, laughs at us, and then wants us to take seriously the circus it skewers. Diana cries at us, then winks at us. She knows nothing, she knows everything.
The audience cheers this of course, just as some cheered the metamorphosis in real time back as it unfolded in the 1990’s. The musical may be flashy, but it’s really some imaginary lyrics stapled on to apocryphal royal events and news moments; so just like The Crown, just more brazen and loud, and without the fancy costumes, lighting, and ponderous chin-stroking.
Yet in compressing and putting events into a kind of musical theater Willy Wonka compression tube, Diana: The Musical’s crudeness also cleverly reveals many truths about the monarchy, media, and we as consumers of it. Sure, it may be a big mess, but it’s also an accurate reflection of our own mess of a relationship with the royals.