- “Diana: the Musical” has been widely panned by critics for being too campy and exploitative.
- It’s not great, but it’s just as exploitative as every fictional adaptation of Princess Diana’s life.
- The Broadway show does have worthwhile aspects, like the catchy revenge-dress song.
“Diana: The Musical” is very bad. There’s no denying that setting any part of Princess Diana’s tragically short life to cheesy pop music isn’t the best idea.
But as I left Longacre Theater, a Broadway venue in New York City, during the opening week of the show last month, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is “Diana: The Musical” suddenly getting buried under accusations of being “exploitative” when there are at least seven other onscreen representations of the late princess in existence that are far less fun?
The musical glides through Princess Diana’s life quite quickly
The biographical musical, starring Jeanna de Waal (“Kinky Boots,” “American Idiot”) as Diana Spencer, begins at the start of her courtship with Prince Charles (“Emily in Paris” actor Roe Hartrampf). It glides as quickly as a two-hour show can through the rest of her life, covering 1980 to 1997, pausing to highlight significant moments via song.
“Diana: The Musical” focuses on Diana’s relationship (and lack thereof) with Charles and the pain it caused her. It also strangely devotes its b-plot to depicting Camilla and Charles’ relationship as one worth rooting for even though it caused Diana pain.
The Christopher Ashley-directed musical also mentions Diana’s struggle with bulimia, notes her postpartum depression, and mentions Princes William and Harry as driving forces in her life — though they are only on stage as prop baby dolls.
It never spends more than a few seconds on milestones that can’t be manipulated into jovial or comical moments.
Diana has been exploited in many ways since long before her death
The New York Times calls out “Diana: The Musical” for “exploiting the People’s Princess” — and it does.
Still, the musical shouldn’t carry the burden of that alone when so many other adaptations have detailed her life in a similar fashion without daring to set the story to music.
Diana has been taken advantage of long before her death on August 31, 1997, by the media and the people closest to her.
And an inquiry into Diana’s famous interview with Martin Bashir earlier this year found that the former BBC journalist “forged bank statements and lied” to get his 1995 interview with the royal, as reported by Insider’s Azmi Haroun and Anneta Konstantinides.
During the interview, Diana spoke about her struggles with bulimia and the fractured state of her marriage to Charles — the latter subject is the main storyline explored in the Broadway musical.
Beyond that, there are plenty of other examples of recent adaptations that explore similar high- and lowlights from Diana’s life — from season four of Netflix’s acclaimed drama centered on the British royal family, “The Crown,” to the Oscar-buzzing biopic, “Spencer,” starring Kirsten Stewart.
So any depiction of the former Princess of Wales is exploitative, whether the goal is to win an Oscar or simply get audiences tapping their toes to a musical number.
‘Let her rest’ is a moot argument against Diana-centered entertainment
When I tell friends and family that I don’t think the number of tomatoes being thrown at “Diana: The Musical” is fair, sometimes they indignantly huff that people should just “let her rest.”
It’s a moot point by now, considering how many big and small screen adaptations, along with documentaries, books, and merchandise exist to remember or exploit — if you look at it from a different angle — the legacy of Diana.
There’s also the argument being made, as The New York Times does, that at least adaptations like “Spencer,” which hit theaters last month, fared better because it only focused on one moment in Diana’s life — the Christmas holiday in 1991 when her marriage to Charles was unraveling.
Still, it’s a focal point that’s been explored over and over again. What did the film reveal that we haven’t already heard?
We know the royals were cruel to Diana; that she struggled with an eating disorder; that she had an impressive ability to connect with the public that impressed the world, and that fact reportedly made her in-laws seethe with jealousy.
We know she was a devoted mother who suffered through an unhappy marriage for as long as she could. We even know she once dreamed of becoming a ballerina and loved bread-and-butter pudding. What more is there to say?
I agree that there is absolutely no need for “Diana: The Musical.” I, too, cringed at the fact that playwright Joe DiPietro and its songwriter, Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, dared to write a song about the fact that Diana visited HIV and AIDS patients during her first solo overseas trip to New York City in 1989. Lyrics like, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell,” oddly punctuated the moment.
Watching actor Gareth Keegan (“The Good Fight”) pop up from center stage half-naked on horseback as James Hewitt, Diana’s former riding instructor and lover, (as confirmed by Diana’s former royal protection officer, Ken Wharf, in his book) is potentially the stuff of nightmares.
But I’ll dare to say that “The Dress” — a musical number toward the end of the show to commemorate the closest moment to “happily ever after” Diana will ever get — is a catchy song, and singing it aloud is almost as empowering as the concept of the princess’ famed revenge dress that she wore to a 1994 gala, the same night that Prince Charles confessed to his affair with Bowles in a documentary that aired on ITV.
De Waal is undoubtedly talented and her Diana is even endearing at times, though the script never gives her a moment to portray that in a way that would satisfy traditional theater critics.
Still, if it’s so bad that “Diana: The Musical” exists, then we should strike every adaptation of Diana’s life down, no matter the awards it might win for celebrities we deem worthy.
No one will ever know which version of Diana’s life the princess herself would pay the price of admission to see, and those of us content to consume her life story as a form of entertainment are not the ones qualified to guess.
“Diana The Musical,” also starring Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles and Broadway veteran Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth II, is running now on Broadway at the Longacre Theater.