Musical Monday: Diana the Musical

I wanted to like this. I mean, it’s a professionally shot Broadway show by the team behind Memphis. What’s not to love? I adore Memphis, which deservedly won the Tony for Best Musical in 2010. Memphis has absolutely gorgeous music, a powerful storyline, and absolutely phenomenal performances. Diana… does not have that. I was somewhat skeptical when I first saw this announced. The trailer was a little uninspiring and Netflix released a clip of “This is How Your People Dance” in advance. “This is How Your People Dance” is the worst song in the show, and they’re all pretty iffy. Still, I was undeterred. Some of my favorite shows have crappy trailers. I mean, the trailer for The Wind in the Willows is terrible, so terrible that I almost skipped the free showing on The Shows Must Go On, and that show is precious.

Even before I watched Diana there was a part of me that worried that the show could be a little exploitive. I’m not from the generation that experienced Princess Diana firsthand and loved her in real time, so I don’t have that personal connection to her. Obviously I know the general strokes of her life and am clearly in favor of what she stood for, but I don’t have the same protective let her rest reaction to this musical that so many people did.

At least, I didn’t before I watched it. Now, that’s my response as well. While I overall enjoyed it, I criticized The Crown for its portrayal of Princess Diana being too focused on memorializing her instead of focusing on depicting her as a living woman. Now that I’ve seen this musical, I appreciate The Crown more; Diana could have used a bit of that tact. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason for this musical aside from coasting on the love for Princess Di. It doesn’t add anything to the known story. The score isn’t particularly good. There’s maybe one semi-memorable song in the whole thing, which is remarkable considering that the spoken scenes are very short and serve only to move from one song to the next. And the lyrics are pretty oof. At one point, some photographers refer to getting photos of Diana as “better than a wank.” That might not even be the worst lyric. Just Google “Diana: the Musical” and you’ll find no shortage of articles that have pulled the most egregious ones.

The characterizations are pretty lazy, too. You’d think that a show based on real people could scrounge up a bit more nuance, but Diana fails there too. Possibly because the shows sprints through many years, there’s a lot of jumping around. Camilla suffers the worst. At the beginning of the show, she goes out of her way to push Charles towards Diana. Then she turns on a dime with no apparent provocation. All of a sudden, she becomes painfully and suffocatingly jealous. It’s a weird turnaround to go from Charles, marry Diana immediately; I know you don’t want to, but I’m telling you that you have to to Charles, how dare you ever acknowledge the wife I pushed you towards; don’t even think about seeing her, even in public at an official function. It’s made even more unfortunate by the fact that she isn’t given any other personality traits, so it’s a total character 180 and not just a reversal of a single opinion. She’s not the only one with shaky characterization, but she’s definitely the worst. Even Diana doesn’t escape. The musical portrays her as alternately saintlike and shallowly petty.

The tone is simply all over the place. It jumps from raunchy sex jokes to distressing scenes of emotional spousal abuse head-spinningly quickly, and despite presenting itself as a comedy for much of runtime it ends (perhaps unsurprisingly) with its titular heroine’s sudden and horrific death. Princess Diana has two children, suffers postpartum depression, and attempts suicide multiple times in the course of a single song. In comparison, there’s a longer song chronicling Diana’s quest to find a “fuck you” dress that she wears for all of five seconds. It’s like the show can’t decide if it wants to be an emotional biopic of a groundbreaking woman whose life was cut tragically short or a campy comedy that focuses on soapy drama. If you want a quick example of how vast the emotional gulch is, watch the first and last songs of the second act (“Here Comes James Hewitt” and “If (Light the World)”) back to back.

The show isn’t all bad. It’s mostly bad, but the actor playing Prince Charles has a nice voice and the part where Diana pops into her wedding dress is cool.

TL;DR Diana: the Musical is not worth the watch. See Memphis instead.

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