On Friday, Netflix dropped Diana: The Musical, a filmed version of the stage production that was supposed to open on Broadway back in March 2020 but was suspended due to the pandemic. The show joins the most recent Emmy-winning season of The Crown, Pablo Larraín’s upcoming biopic Spencer and a new CNN documentary series in the flood of Diana content that’s been coming our way over the past year or so.
I’ve been on my own personal Diana journey, as some readers may recall, and so this past Friday evening found me extremely here for this latest offering. Armed with a very necessary bottle of pretty decent chardonnay and a healthy skepticism of musical theater balanced out by a willingness to go wherever the hell this show wanted to take me, I fired up Netflix and settled in to watch Diana: The Musical.
Now, as a Broadway agnostic, I’m not super sure what people want from any musical, let alone one about an actual historical person. I mean, I assume something in the way of a highlights reel of best-of moments from their biography set to songs that you’ll still be humming as you fight other midtown tourists for a cab on Eighth Avenue after leaving the theater. But one thing became clear pretty quickly: Diana: The Musical is about as concerned with actual history as Disney’s Pocahontas. And that’s totally fine and makes sense in this context I guess.
Of course, the minute I started thinking about this, I realized how much better an animated version of Diana: The Musical would have been. I mean, obviously, I’m on record as having a questionable enthusiasm for tastelessly satirical cartoons. From my notes: Maybe if I drink enough chardonnay this will start to kinda look like a cartoon?
One of the early numbers is all about the 19-year-old Diana’s (Jeanna de Waal) musical taste. Charles (Roe Hartrampf) and Camilla (Erin Davie) are kind of poking fun at the fact that she’s into Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Culture Club, etc. And then Charles takes Diana to a cello recital or something and she’s like, “I wish he (Charles) was Elton John and we were at a Prince concert.” From my notes: Now I kinda just want to watch that scene in The Crown where Diana and her friends go out on the town and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” is playing. You know what also goes great with chardonnay? Stevie Nicks! I wonder if Diana actually was a Stevie Nicks fan…
The theme of Act I seems to be the gulf between Diana’s juvenile romantic fantasies and the reality of marrying into the royal family. And that tracks with what I know about the real-life Princess of Wales. There’s a scene in which Charles is trying to explain to his mother that he’s just not that into Diana. But instead of hearing him, the Queen (Judy Kaye) has a song about how basically disappointing love is, which includes Charles’s infamous gaffe: “Whatever love means anyway.”
Meanwhile, Diana keeps name-dropping romance novelist Barbara Cartland. And at this point, three glasses of wine into Act I, something truly magical and hilarious happened. From my notes: Oh god, is this song going to be about Barbara Cartland? OOH, no! I hope Barbara Cartland just appears to Diana and sings her own song! On a chaise lounge! OH MY GOD HERE SHE IS! ON A CHAISE! I MANIFESTED THIS! Literally I was typing all this and Barbara Cartland appeared! I’m drunk with my new power and also with chardonnay. Lol, I don’t even know what’s going on, this is too much!
So, much of the rest of Act I is kind of a blur: the wedding; Camilla’s husband Somebody Parker Bowls (Zach Adkins) shows up for 10 seconds; Diana upstaging tweedy socks Chuckles in Wales; future Hair Club for Men ignorer Prince William is born; that “Uptown Girl” performance, except not to “Uptown Girl”; Diana does some self-harm, and then she discovers fashion. Also, Camilla and Charles have a tortured love song, and she misses him most on Sundays — this will apparently be her refrain/love theme for the rest of the show. Also, sidebar, wasn’t Emerald Fennell just the best as Camilla? So cool in like, what, two scenes in Season 3?
Suddenly, the screen goes black for about five seconds, which I guess means we’ve reached what would be intermission. Act II opens with a number that, I swear to god, almost killed me. Barbara Cartland — who, I found out later, is also played by Kaye –returns to the stage to sing about Diana’s lover James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan), who rises from below the stage wearing jodhpurs and riding boots but no shirt, astride a saddle. No horse, just a saddle — kinda like Madonna on the Confessions Tour. It is idiotically hot and absurd, and, according to my notes: I really hope James Whoitt never puts on a shirt.
Alas, even shirtless James Hewitt couldn’t stop me from looking at my phone for a while, and when I turned my attention back to Diana: The Musical, Diana the character had discovered AIDS and was visiting gay men who were dying in a hospital. From my notes: Ugh, oh f*ck me, I might cry a whole lot now. UGH, oh yeah, it’s happening. A solid soppy white wine cry! Which is actually the best kind of crying!
Act II highlights through a chardonnay/emotional haze: Diana has a new wig and is more assertive in her 30s; Diana vs. Camilla basement fight club number; is Sarah Spencer a Tyler Durden-eque figment of Diana’s imagination? With 30 minutes left on the clock, James Hewitt is just now breaking up with Diana, so I assume we’re not getting Hasnat Khan or Dodie Fayed. A song about the Andrew Morton (Nathan Lucrezio) book, which includes the absolute pinnacle of Western musical theatre lyricism: “The depression, the bulimia / something something / obsession by the media.”
Diana’s infamous “F*ck You Dress” gets its own song, kicked off by Di’s gross butler Paul Burrell (Bruce Dow). From my notes: If this was a Disney cartoon, Paul Burrell would be, like, the wardrobe from Beauty and the Beast singing “Sugar Daddy” from Hedwig. Also, this whole time Camilla would have been concocting evil schemes and probably also a potion would be involved to destroy Diana. Honestly, you know this is going to happen in, I don’t know, 20 years, maybe? If climate change hasn’t turned us all into Furiosa (Yeah, Furiosa, not Mad Max) then Disney is probably going to do a Diana animated musical, I’m sure. I mean, there’s precedent. Anastasia!
Towards the end, the Queen gets a nice enough song about how she was just an officer’s wife for like a year before she was coronated. In my notes, I refer to this song as “An Ode to Claire Foy.” And somehow Diana: The Musical yadda-yaddas the Wales’ divorce and Diana has a song about everything she’s going to do with her life. But instead she dies and de Waal exits the stage in silence, lit by flashbulbs.
And that’s pretty much Diana: The Musical. Apparently, you’ll be able to see the show on Broadway beginning November 2. I assume the Longacre Theatre has a bar that serves chardonnay.