Back in early February of 2019, previews for a musical about the life of Diana Princess of Wales took place at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The COVID-19 pandemic was about to come and change the course of world events, canceling and delaying a number of productions including this musical simply called, “Diana.” Eventually production would resume resulting in a run of 33 performances and 16 previews on Broadway in late 2021. Also during this time a filmed version of the musical was released on Netflix. None of these were well reviewed with the film version being nominated for a number of Razzie Awards. But is “Diana” really that bad?
To be fair, most musicals have to be accepted with a certain amount of cheese. The idea of taking a dramatic subject and setting it to music with dancing and lavish choreography has to be taken with a degree of understanding. Strong writing can help alleviate this, and create an immersive experience where things feel natural and cohesive. This does not happen with “Diana.”
“Diana” is one of those films/shows/productions where you really have to wonder why no one along the way said, “Maybe this is a bad idea.” One could easily argue that the very concept of making a musical based on Princess Diana’s life was a terrible, terrible idea to begin with. Given the circumstances behind her death and how she could not escape publicity in life, is it in good taste to put her into the limelight after her death? If so, should it really be in the form of a musical?
Those are some hard hitting questions that don’t require a nuanced answer when the musical itself is this awful. I mean this is laughably awful but because it deals with a real person’s life, and one that ended so tragically, it’s hard to laugh at it without feeling a sense of guilt. The whole production is unintentional cringe comedy. This actually feels like something out of an episode of “The Office” where if for some reason, Michael Scott wanted to make a musical out of Princess Diana’s life.
I almost had to stop watching after the third song, “This is How Your People Dance.”
The song is supposed to portray the commoner status of Diana and her down to earth taste for the music of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Elton John, Adam Ant, etc.. This is juxtaposed with her sitting next to Charles the Prince of Wales at a classical music concert. But instead of highlighting the differences between the royal family’s cultural leanings and Diana’s own taste, it just comes across as bafflingly absurd and over the top, even for a fantasy sequence. The ham-fisted lyrics are comically over the top, except that they’re clearly not supposed to be comical.
I then literally had to stop watching for a while after the next number, “Snap, Click.” It’s bad enough when the lyrics for the song include paparazzi singing the words, “snap, click” but it’s even worse when they’re doing a choreographed dance with trench coats. I mean, remember, these are people who would ultimately end up being the reason Diana was killed, and here they are dancing and singing, “snap, click” and eventually rhyming the word “wank” with “bank.”
After walking away for a while and coming back to the movie, I pressed on in hopes that it could at least not get any worse, but of course that was wrong. Part of the problem is that this musical is so very wrong tonally, not just in the lyrics but in the music itself. There’s a kind of ’80s rock sound to much of the music, especially the drums; Oh lord the drums. They strike with such bombast that you’d think it was Phil Collins in the prime of his life back there. It makes so very little sense to have strong rock percussion even in more gentle, emotional moments, but there it is.
The second act opens with “Here Comes James Hewitt” at which you’d have to give yourself pause to ask yourself if this isn’t actually a self-aware comedy. It is so ridiculously beyond sensible that the only reasonable explanation for it existing is to make this musical into a comedy. The way he comes in, shirtless on a giant saddle, with a chorus of people singing his name, is equal parts confounding and laughable. And this is the OPENING to the second act!
Other highlights include the number, “The Main Event” where they rhyme Camilla with “Thrilla in Manilla” and “The Dress” where the words “feck” and “fecking” are repeated ad nauseum. This is supposed to be more comical, but it also comes literally two songs before she dies, making for not just an abrupt change in tone, but a rushed one as well. As much as I just wished the musical would end already, the backend of the second act also feels too rushed.
If there is one saving grace to this travesty, (and indeed there is only one) it’s the actress who plays Diana, Jeanna de Waal. Her voice is legitimately beautiful, powerful, and captivating. Additionally, her performance in general is the strongest of the cast and perhaps the only one that actually feels natural. Given the view of the royal family vs. Diana, maybe it’s intentional that she’s the only one that appeals to the audience, similar to the real life Diana’s appeal to the world.
In the defense of everyone on the cast, there’s no way that anybody could be given this book and make it work. You could gather the greatest cast of stage actors, living or dead, give them this to perform, and it would still be horrendous. Jeanna de Waal is the only one whose performance rises above the material, but she can’t carry it up with her; no one can.
“Diana the Musical” really is as bad as its been made out to be, but it’s bad on a level that few movies tend to be. This story isn’t about a fictional princess, it’s about a real person who was hounded, harassed, and pursued by the camera and those wielding it, to the point that it cost her her life. However well meaning the creators of this musical were, there is a pervasive tastelessness to making a grand spectacle out of the life of someone who died from her life being a grand spectacle. If this weren’t about a real person, it would be a hysterically bad play, the likes of which would live on in the same breath as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” “Carrie” (the musical), and “Dance of the Vampires.“ Instead we have something that is beyond the realm of quality and good taste, and I hope we never see the likes of it again.
“Diana The Musical” is available to watch on Netflix.