Words by Ali Arief
If I’m perfectly honest I think this was the most bizarre musical I have ever watched. Readers may recall my scathing judgement explicitly targeted at this absolute train wreck of a production a few editions back, and I stand by what I say after watching Netflix’s Diana: The Musical with attentive eyes, so don’t say I didn’t give it a chance. I really did. Like many, I’m a fan of The Crown and I think it’s important to keep up with modern history and the pop culture that surrounds it. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of Kristen Stewart as Diana in Spencer, and I do believe that when portrayed tastefully and correctly, you can make decent entertainment out of serious subject matter such as the case of Princess Diana.
The taste and class of which The Crown and supposedly Spencer possesses, Diana the Musical simply doesn’t. And by taste and class, I’m talking about remembering the fact that what happened to Diana was a tragedy, and that this was a real-life human woman.
The production itself aired on Netflix on October 1st, after cancelling their live shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The music was written by David Bryan, pianist of Bon Jovi and book writer Jon DiPietro, and tells the story of the people’s princess Diana Spencer, a nineteen-year-old romanticist who dreams of marrying Prince Charles, and eventually does, much to her eventual distress. It’s a story most of us in the UK are familiar with and it refuses to hold back on exposing the sordid details of Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, a relationship that I absolutely was not ready to see romanticised I can assure you.
Whilst productions such as The Crown presents the delicate and tumultuous nature of Charles, Diana’s and Camilla’s entanglement and pays due respect to the nuances of everyone’s situation, Diana: The Musical is just a camp re-enactment of the populist gossip and loose history and theory surrounding their situations. Because this musical was performed on Broadway, the audience that will be primarily watching will be American, which causes such a tone shift throughout the performance. Not only are they romanticising this very sad moment in history, but they are also using accentuated ‘English-isms’ to draw in and please the anglophiles, phrases such as “better than a Guinness, better than a w*nk” and the overuse of the word ‘sod’ and ‘feck’ come to mind. Not to mention Queen Elizabeth is portrayed drinking tea in almost each scene she’s in.
What truly perplexed me throughout this musical was whether it was trying to be satirical, or if it was trying to be serious. The clumsy writing, followed by the appearance of romance novelist Barbara Cartland with racy scenes between Diana and James Hewitt leads the audience to believe that perhaps this is all just a bit of silly fun, an opportunity to take a laugh at British Monarchy and History. Of course, there is absolutely a time and place for such things, but a Broadway musical telling the story of a real person who suffered intensely at the hands of such an institution, is not one of them.
The actual costuming and production of the show is decent enough. As a vintage fashion lover, I particularly enjoyed the eighties wardrobe choices, and Diana’s wardrobe needed to be spectacular to legitimise her character. The choreography was also similarly seamless, if predictable and typical of the musical theatre genre. I wasn’t impressed by the song writing and thought it clumsy and tasteless (“I should’ve known that I shouldn’t date a Scorpio”, really?!).
Whilst I agree that Diana as a cultural icon is dripping in camp, I must wonder how much of this is appropriate considering the tragic way the story ended. The musical finishes with the report of Diana’s car crash, with her walking off into a paparazzi filled haze and off stage. There is no reaction from either Charles or The Queen, instead the reprise of ‘If’ plays as the audience is hit with the reminder of the tragic event that took place in history just over twenty years ago.
I must sit and think about whether I hated this musical, or whether not I loved to hate this musical. I think it is most likely the first, however you do have to sit and admire the sheer audacity of this piece being performed. I can’t imagine that it would’ve taken off well in the UK, but I can understand the appeal to people in the States due to its brazen and bold portrayal of the Royal Family. The songs where catchy if clumsy, and as terrible things often do, it has gained somewhat of a cult status due to its absurdity and overt campness.
What I’m trying to say is that this show lacks substance and originality. We learn nothing of Diana’s lived life, nothing of her charity work (except a very rushed scene involving her AID’s work) or her intense life as a royal and a mother. Instead, the production focuses on retelling and rehashing every possible known trope about her. Feminist icon? Check. Fashion lover? Check. Victim? Check. Martyr? Check. No nuance, no expansion, no development and finally no originality. It’s almost as if they retold the same pop-culture mythology about Diana that the Tabloids did, and that in way is inexcusable.
My moral outrage aside, this was just another run of the mill Broadway piece. Great costuming and choreography with rocky and lively showtunes combined with a penchant for camp and tacky glamour combined with mediocre acting. I just felt a strange combination of moral outrage and intense amusement whilst watching this piece. It’s not hard to see just how much of an internet sensation its become, much like the film adaption of the musical Cats. If I’m completely honest, it’s worth seeing just so you can make your mind up on how tasteless it actually is.
Was it “better than a Guinness, better than a w*nk” though? Absolutely not.