While the pandemic was a terrible time for theatre, one positive that came out of it was the growth of online theatre. Theatre fans had been crying out for years for more West End and Broadway shows to be professionally filmed but few of these ever seemed to materialise. An abundance of digital theatre and the release of the proshot of Hamilton on Disney+ led to the realisation there is a market for these proshot releases that won't damage the shows ticket sales and, in actual fact, has the opposite effect. I am an avid campaigner for more of these to be made and released as it makes theatre far more accessible. Last month, we enjoyed an incredibly filmed version of Come From Away on Broadway and now, we have a bit of an unexpected release - the brand new Broadway musical based on Princess Diana.
Before I start reviewing the production itself, let me just clear something up. I pride myself on positivity and strive to keep negativity away from this website. The Arts have been through so much, all I ever want to do is celebrate its successes. Where I have reviewed things I haven't particularly liked in the past, I have tried to focus on the positive aspects of those productions so it doesn't feel like an attack. There are certain writers who seem to love celebrating the failures of theatre and that will never be me. However, I do need to be honest about how I feel and the positives in this show, in my opinion, are few and far between. So if you would rather read a completely positive version of my Diana - The Musical review, please click here instead. Otherwise - strap in. It's going to be a bumpy ride!
Written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro - the team responsible for The Toxic Avenger and, one of my all time favourite musicals. Memphis - this first appeared for a limited run in California in 2019 before debuting on Broadway in March 2020. You know what happened next, of course. After two weeks of previews, the show closed down before its official opening night. A filmed production was unexpectedly announced last year and was filmed at its home of the Longacre Theatre last summer. They have taken the unusual (and perhaps brave) decision to release the filmed production before the show reopens on Broadway next month. But is it any good?
In short, no. No, it is really not good. In fact, it is the single worst piece of theatre I've ever seen. Filmed at the theatre with no audience, no applause and no laughter - I imagine that would be an identical experience after the show reopens next month. The show feels rough and unfinished and would definitely have benefited from more previews so the moments where the audience would inevitably groan and cringe could be removed. Watching this, you get the impression it was made by people who don't understand how theatre works - but looking at the, usually reliable, creative team involved with Diana, that can't be true. Maybe this was made as a practical joke or as a bet? The whole thing is inexplicable.
It's biggest failure is the writing. The lyrics sound like they were written by a 6 year old who was giving a rhyming dictionary. I can honestly say I have never heard more awful lyrics in musical theatre. The dialogue inbetween songs is equally painful. If you think I'm being unncessary, I present to you - the worst lyrics in Diana - The Musical:
TOP OF THE FLOPS - THE TEN WORST LYRICS IN DIANA:
10. Too many bows, too many ruffles, too many frilly, frumpy fruffles
9. Nights like this I envy the poor, their parties can't be such a bloody bore
8. My son is on the telly pouring out his heart while his wife is on the town acting like a tart
7. Feel the groove, Even royals need to move
6. Better than a Guinness, Better than a wank
5. I will try my very best as I stumble in this dress
4. James Hewitt did do it
3. Darling, I'm holding my son so let me say jolly well done
2. Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio
1. Harry, my ginger-haired son, you'll always be second to none
I wish I was making those up. The rest of the lyrics aren't much better. Basic, uninspired and incredibly repetitive. "A pretty, pretty girl in a pretty, pretty dress" repeated incessantly and the nonsensical "A feckity feckity feckity feckity feck you dress" will have you screaming at your screen like you've just been listening to an irritating novelty song on repeat for an hour. Basically what I'm saying is Diana is the musical theatre equivalent to 'Cottoneye Joe'.
The songs, in general, are extremely forgettable, uninspired and just not up to standard. There are songs in the show including 'Snap, Click' that sound identical to 'That's not possible' from Memphis, while the final song 'If (Light The World)' ends up being an obvious rip-off of 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story' from Hamilton. I was half expecting the cast to start singing "The orphanage" halfway through. The best song in the show is actually the show opener 'Underestimated' which is a pleasant song. Sadly, it's all downhill from there.
The problem with Diana is it can never find its tone. It plays off as a silly, parody style musical - almost panto like. Similar to the current West End show The Windsors which manages to poke fun at the Royal family, including the beloved Princess of Wales, in a knowing tongue-in-cheek manner. The problem with this show is that they seem to be taking themselves seriously and not in on the joke. This is very much a case of people laughing at them, not with them. Too many Americanisms littered around the show are very jarring and show a lack of understanding for the subject they are covering. Probably for the best though as if this is ever made it to the West End, they would be arrested for treason. And dont even get me started on their attempt at a Welsh accent!
Much has been said about the 'This Is How Your People Dance' sequence. Rather than write about it, I'm going to post it and let it speak for itself:
WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?
I don't claim to be a Royalist by any stretch. I love a good joke at their expense and howled at The Windsors - Endgame. What irks me about Diana is the disservice they have done to her by failing to understand her character. Her entire presence in the show is solely linked to the men in her life, unless she is talking about fashion. There was surely so much more to Diana than that. Apart from a quick turnaround in her pregnancies, her role as a mother isnt really mentioned while her charity work is touched upon as a clear afterthought. Her memorable visit to to an HIV/AIDS ward in the 1980s was such an important moment in changing the views of people, so to see it treated with such insensivity here was an insult.
"Are you getting good care?"
"The best anywhere although my eyeliner's run low"
"No need to fear. I'll send a case here. Makeup is one thing I know"
That interaction sums up the tone of this, completely failing to understand the significance of this moment and losing all emotion in what is the perfect example of a show lacking any heart or soul. Her life post-Charles is wrapped up in such a hurry, it all feels very misjudged. Ultimately this show has done more damage to Diana than the Royal family did.
The role of Diana is played by Jeanna de Waal. To her credit, she is a remarkable talent with a beautiful voice but is completely wasted here. The fact is you can't polish a turd - if a talented actor is given bad material to use, they can't exactly work a miracle. Even legends like Meryl Streep or Patti LuPone would struggle with this. Judy Kaye gets to tackle two roles - one as Queen Elizabeth II where she goes on her own emotional journey as a secondary plotline which seems very misplaced considering how at odds she always was with Diana. Her second character is a baffling choice as author Barbara Cartland, who appears sporadically in one of the strangest moments I have seen in any musical (and I watched Harry Hill's ill-fated X Factor musical I Can't Sing). The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable but don't get any chance to show off their talents with such a terrible book. The other positive are some gorgeous outfits, inspired by Diana's own inimitable style.
I take no pleasure in being negative about a show. In my opinion, this is a terrible show that I feel is destined to go in the history books as one of Broadways biggest flops. I may be wrong - time will tell, and I would never wish for a show to close, but we all know how cutthroat it can be out there. The fact is releasing Diana to the world before it had even opened on Broadway was a huge risk that has sadly failed spectacularly. Perhaps playing to audiences for a full run of previews would have allowed them to realise where the show fell flat and made the necessary changes. Instead they have released it to the world before it is ready and shot themselves in the foot. Diana really isn't just an insult to Diana herself, but also an insult to the great art form that is musical theatre.
I always say that the beauty of theatre is how subjective it is - I have already received comments from people that liked this, and for that I'm happy. It would be boring if we all liked the same thing and I don't revel in the misery of seeing shows fail like some others do. It's great that we are getting more professionally recorded Broadway shows and I would hope this doesn't discourage more shows to follow suit. My final take on Diana is you need the bad shows to truly appreciate the good ones. So for that I thank Diana - next time I compare a show I love to this, it will just make me love it even more.
To end on a positive note, Diana was filmed during the height of the pandemic in summer 2020 while all the theatres on Broadway were closed. Carefully filmed using many Covid protocols, I appreciate all the effort that went towards making it and keeping theatre alive. While this may not have been my cup of tea, that doesn't take away from everything all the cast and creatives did to get this production out there.
Diana - The Musical is streaming now on Netflix. It opens on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on November 2nd.