I could say a lot of very rude things about Diana: The Musical, currently streaming on Netflix. But nothing I can say would be harsher than simply describing some of its most bizarre moments, of which there are many. For instance, one of the first numbers features Diana sitting through a cello performance with Charles, and this is her reaction: “The Russian plays on and on / like an endless telethon / How I wish that he were Elton John.” James Hewitt, the cavalry officer with whom Diana once had an affair, is introduced by the character of romance novelist Barbara Cartland, Diana’s real-life stepgrandmother (played in this production by the same person as the queen). Hewitt emerges on (staged) horseback, in riding pants, shirtless, as though striding off the cover of a romance novel. There is a musical number about Diana’s famous photo op with AIDS patients, and another that refers to a showdown between the women in Charles’s life as “the thriller in Manila between Diana and Camilla” in the chorus.
Imagine Phantom of the Opera, without any of the campy over-the-top appeal or the big chandelier crash. Imagine a sonic Thomas Kinkade painting of the Princess Diana Beanie Baby, and you are approaching the experience of this production. It is kitsch on a scale that could only be truly appreciated by whoever runs the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee chamber of commerce. I truly could not believe what I was seeing.
Diana: The Musical is the work of songwriting team Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, who also co-wrote the Tony-winning musical Memphis. Bryan is also the keyboardist for the band Bon Jovi. DiPietro was only vaguely aware of Diana’s story when he picked up a biography, he told the BBC; his approach came into focus as he learned more about the Di/Charles/Camilla love triangle: “It was epic and royal and I thought, she’s an 80s pop princess, and I often collaborate with David Bryan of Bon Jovi, who was an 80s pop star. I told him the idea and he was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great, yes.’”
But the show was just entering previews on Broadway when Covid-19 shut everything down in March 2020. And so Netflix—which has obviously had a great deal of success with the Windsors and their many domestic travails, in the form of The Crown—decided to film a full production, sans audience, and put it on their platform.
It goes without saying that this Broadway production misunderstands almost everything about the British royal family; though, to be clear, this is a common American problem. “It’s such a posh party—I’m used to talking to five-year-olds,” Diana tells Camilla bashfully as we are introduced to the character, standing outside a party for a breather. Diana was actually posh as all hell—her big problem was that she wasn’t sophisticated enough to see what was going on around her, at least in the beginning. (In part because she was 19.) “Perhaps this girl can turn him into a rocker” is an absolutely terrible lyric, but it does at least get at how badly Diana misread her fiance.
But, frankly, I couldn’t even get all that far into the specifics of how the musical handled the characters involved and its faithfulness (or lack thereof) to the historical record, because I simply could not get past what the hell was unfolding on stage at any moment. Here is the number in which Diana longs for Elton John rather than Bach and announces “If Queen were playing now, Freddie Mercury would slay it!” It culminates in a fantasy of her and Charles—and I apologize for writing this—rocking out together.
I can’t stress enough that this is at the beginning of the musical, and it keeps going for more than an hour. There’s a chorus of dancing paparazzi in old-time hats and trenchcoats, singing: “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank, snatch a few pics its money the bank.” There is a musical number about her disastrous decision to speak to journalist Andrew Morton for his book. There are two numbers explicitly about clothing: “Pretty Pretty Girl,” about Diana using her fashion icon status to garner attention for her causes, and “The Dress,” duet with the man playing butler Paul Burrell, in which they sing about the powers of a “fuck-you dress,” culminating in the reveal of her famous black “revenge” dress. This whole musical is essentially arranged around hitting the beats of Diana’s most famous photographic moments; the low point is “Secrets and Lies,” about Diana’s visits to AIDS patients, which just comes off as incredibly crass, making treacle out of an absolutely devastating historical event marked by immense human suffering.
What’s more, the focus on nailing every one of those outfits and images makes everything feel simply obligatory, offering the inescapable impression of a cash-in. Not that Diana: The Musical is the first such project, and it won’t be the last. We’re in the middle of a Diana boom within the larger royal boom, with Netflix racking up Emmy nominations for its Diana season of The Crown and Kristen Stewart already getting buzz for her portrayal of Diana in November’s Spencer. It is perhaps a warning, though—a reminder that it’s so easy to land square in made-for-TV-movie territory with this sort of ripped-from-the-headlines story, generally, and Diana presents a special sort of danger. Best intentions notwithstanding, most portrayals land somewhere in the vicinity of that famous Franklin Mint doll. Just ask Naomi Watts!