The surprise of “Diana the Musical,” which is opening tonight at the Longacre Theater, is that it’s more enjoyable – better! — on Broadway than it is on Netflix, where a recording of this stage musical about the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, has been streaming since October 1. Critics, especially British ones, eviscerated it: “comically misconceived” (The Times of London) “cringey…confusing..ickiest” (The Standard) ‘What? What? WHAT?’ (The Guardian.)
Now, nobody on this side of the Atlantic is going to nominate “Diana” for a Pulitzer Prize. But the show I saw on stage has several things going for it:
- The least significant reason that what I saw in person was better than what I saw online is that the creative team has made some changes to the script, perhaps in response to the ridicule.
Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf) no longer sings: “Darling, I’m holding our son. So, let me just say, jolly well done!”
Now it’s “Darling, I’m holding our son. Suddenly our lives have begun.”
Diana (Jeanna De Waal) no longer sings: “Harry, my ginger-haired son/
you’ll always be second to none..”
“Harry, my sweet little one
You’ll always be second to none.”
But a man with AIDS still sings
“I may be unwell
But I’m handsome as Hell”
And the predatory paparazzi still gyrate menacingly toward Diana in trench coats singing
“Better than a Guinness
better than a wank
snatch a few pics
it’s money in the bank
honey you are money in the bank”
2. The cast and the creative team are full of Broadway pros, many of them Tony winners, working in the medium they know best. Yes, that includes Joe DiPietro’ and ‘David Bryan, the writers of “Diana” (Tony winners for “Memphis”), who are not doing their best work here. But it also means – and here’s the point – the designers: David Zinn (scenic design), William Ivey Long (costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Paul Huntley (hair design)….all of whose work you can experience from your seat at the Longacre with far more satisfaction than watching the two-dimensional screen.
The costumes are a particular treat, not just because Diana has a new glamorous ensemble every time she reappears on stage, but because she often doesn’t go offstage to change into the next dress: It happens right before our eyes (the sort of tromp l’oeil Long also achieved before, most memorably for me in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, one of the six shows for which he’s won a Tony*.)
At one point, Diana miraculously appears both as the bride in the wedding dress and veil standing side by side with Prince Charles, and also in her slip nervously fretting about the wedding with her sister. Suddenly, the two Dianas merge; she is in her wedding dress, the veil lifted up – there must have been a back entrance to the dress, but it was too quick for me to see
If the lyrics the performers have to sing can be ludicrous, their singing and dancing are not. Jeanna De Waal has an outstanding voice, but everybody in the cast can put a song over, including the members of the ensemble, who can really move. And you can see and hear them relatively unfiltered. I have mixed feelings about the choreography by Kelly Devine (a two-time Tony nominee) but it’s certainly more pleasing to be able to take it all in.
3. Then there’s the personal, perhaps peculiar difference in the way I react to a show on Netflix compared to one on Broadway.
I generally have a ten-minute rule on Netflix. If a show hasn’t grabbed me in ten minutes, I stop watching. I suppose this has deprived me of some beauties that unfold slowly, but it’s worth it for all the time I’ve been spared watching clunkers.
By contrast, I have never in my life left a Broadway show before it ended..
I knew I was going to see “Diana” on stage soon, so I made an exception to my Netflix rule. But several subpar scenes from “Diana” reminded me of memorable ones from “The Crown,” and prompted me to halt “Diana” to rewatch those scenes from the miniseries.
The very act of theatergoing demands a kind of continuity and concentration. It also delivers an experience that offers rewards beyond the flaws or virtues of any particular show. It doesn’t hurt that we are returning in person after so many months to the first big original Broadway musical of the season, with some two dozen cast members, and more than two dozen songs. If too many of the songs sound the same, some have catchy hooks,, all are played by a live band that includes a trumpeter and a French horn. And the bright lights of Broadway are literally flashing in our faces as soon as the flower-encrusted curtain rises, and Diana sings:
Flashbulbs fill the air
Frenzy fills the night
A lonely girl aswirl
Lost in blinding light
This first song, which sums up the plot to come, is entitled “Underestimated” (“Fairy tales exist/And this one has a twist/’Cause you’re underestimated.”)
Whether or not Diana was indeed underestimated, I can’t make the argument that “Diana The Musical” has been. While I was struck by the contrast with the video, I felt that the stage show ultimately falls short — campy at best, more often just superficial, and too often crass and inept. Three scenes in particular felt emblematic to me of the whole enterprise.
It’s not until the top of Act II that one can feel the full force of the show’s campiness. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland in bright pink introduces a shirtless hunk sitting on a saddle, while the female citizens of England sing “oh, oh, oh, oh” in ecstasy.
The hunk is cavalry officer James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan), who then sings suggestively to Diana, Princess of Wales
I can take you for a ride
All your troubles cast aside
You’ll dismount – satisfied
It helps that Barbara Cartland is portrayed by Judy Kaye, an exceptional, multiple Tony winning performer who also portrays Queen Elizabeth; the production was lucky to get her. (I’m not sure how lucky she was.)
Hewitt was the man Diana took as a lover when her marriage to Prince Charles was on the rocks. If you believe this musical, their relationship was clearly doomed from the moment they met.
For the first date, Prince Charles takes Diana to a classical concert featuring a world famous cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. We see cast member Anthony Murphy as Rostropovich play the cello, and hear a few bars of classical music, until Diana sings
The Russian plays
On and on
Like an endless telethon
How I wish that he were Elton John.
She sings on
‘Alright, I’m no intellect
But maybe there’s a discotheque
Where the prince could hear Prince
and we’d all get Funkadellic’.
She then references the rock band Queen (get it?), and Pet Shop Boys, as the cello music turns into electric rock, and the palace staff boogie, while singing “Feel the groove/Even Royals need to move.”
This musical number could most charitably be read as a demonstration of how clearly unsuited they were for each other from the get-go. But it’s more easily interpreted as siding with Diana’s taste over Charles’s, exhibiting the kind of fake populism that equates classical art with elitism. It establishes Prince Charles as a snob, part of the effort throughout the musical to paint him as, if not an outright villain, somebody undeserving of sympathy. (There is a more villainous character, Camilla Parker-Bowles, who we see from the get-go scheming and interfering; Broadway veteran Erin Davie gets the thankless task of portraying her, and manages to convey the human being, despite the writing.) It was after watching the musical’s treatment of Charles on Netflix that I went back to The Crown to watch Season 3, Episode 6 of The Crown, “Tywysog Cymru,” in which the young Charles is forced to study Welsh in Wales and develops a relationship with his teacher, a Welch nationalist and anti-monarchist who nevertheless takes pity on the lonely youth.
The third emblematic scene, which gave me the most pause, is the musical number “The Words Came Pouring Out” where Diana has spilled the beans on her marriage in an interview with biographer Andrew Morton, and the citizens of England prance around with the open book in their hands, belting out
A marriage built on lies
The depression, the bulimia
The assault by the media
Five suicide attempts
A Kensington estrangement
They’re leading separate lives
In this royal arrangement
Turning the Princess of Wales’ misery into pop lyrics drives home how much of a violation this musical can feel . The show depicts the British press with contempt for being insensitive and exploitative.. But it’s hard to see how “Diana The Musical” is so much less so.
Diana The Musical
Tickets $59 to 250
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, with music by Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley, choreography by Kelly Devine and musical supervision and arrangements by Ian Eisendrath
Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Hair Design by Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design by Angelina Avallone;
Cast: Jeanna de Waal as Diana, Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles, Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth, Zach Adkins, Ashley Andrews, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Holly Ann Butler, Richard Gatta, Alex Hairston, Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Shaye B. Hopkins, André Jordan, Gareth Keegan, Libby Lloyd, Nathan Lucrezio, Tomás Matos, Chris Medlin, Anthony Murphy, Kristen Faith Oei, Laura Stracko, Bethany Ann Tesarck and Michael Williams.
Photographs by Matthew Murphy.
*According to a recent article in NPR, Long has stepped away from the production amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. But his name is still in the credits.