Logically, it makes perfect sense that Diana: The Musical should exist. After all, Diana, Princess of Wales lends herself extraordinarily well to musical theatre. Hers was a story of wealth and betrayal, of high camp and tragedy, plus she also happened to be an enormous fan of the medium. If you built a time machine and used it to tell Diana that she would one day get her own Evita, she would be absolutely thrilled.
However, Diana died a quarter of a century ago and will never get to see Diana: The Musical. Some people get all the luck.
Originally slated to debut on Broadway last year, Diana: The Musical only managed to sneak out a handful of previews before Covid shut everything down. And even though it is due to reopen next month, a version filmed without an audience was today released on Netflix. Why? Presumably the business model is that people will see Diana: The Musical on TV, fall in love with it and then snap up tickets like crazy as soon as it reopens in theatres. It’s genius.
Or it would be, if Diana: The Musical was actually any good. However, Diana: The Musical contains a song where Diana is chased through the streets of London by members of the paparazzi who all chant “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank / Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank” in excruciating cod-cockney accents, so I’m sure you’ll understand that “good” isn’t necessarily the first adjective I’d reach for here.
What a genuinely bizarre work of art this is. Written by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, Diana: The Musical has the look and feel of an intentional parody; a sort of Springtime for Hitler for Daily Express readers. You could stick a pin in almost every song and pull out a line that makes the whole endeavour feel like it was specifically created as a berserk prank against the world. My particular favourite is the moment when Diana looks into a crib and tenderly sings: “Harry, my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none.” But others might prefer the part when the Queen belts out a song about Prince Charles’ inability to keep it in his pants, or the song that appears to be called A Thriller in Manilla with Camilla.
Dame Barbara Cartland has a recurring role here, being wheeled onstage like a blancmange on a bright pink chaise lounge. So too does James Hewitt, who arrives topless astride a pommel horse while the chorus line coos “Ooh James Hewitt!” over and over again. For the majority of its two-hour duration, it’s very clear that Diana: The Musical just wants to be a saucy romp.
But it cannot be that, because you cannot tell the story of Princess Diana without including its ending. Fatal car accidents have a tendency to suck the fun out of a room, and so the musical is forced to pivot to something approximating the climax of Hamilton. Time slows down, and Diana’s survivors try to make sense of what happened. But where Hamilton ended with a shocking, unknowable gasp, this ends with something so trite that may very well have been cribbed from a Live Laugh Love website. I’d tell you what it is, but I don’t want to ruin the ending. But if I can’t ruin the ending, that means you have to go and watch all of Diana: The Musical instead. I’m sorry. I can’t win.
From a practical perspective, you can understand why the musical chose the Netflix route. This last year and a half has been ruinous for the stage, and so providing work and money for the crew and cast – all of whom, aside from one wildly ostentatious Welsh accent, acquit themselves as well as they can given the material – doubles an act of benevolence. But the show itself is aggressively bananas, and the venture isn’t helped by the lack of audience. With the right crowd, there is a slim chance that Diana: The Musical could have gone down gangbusters. But everyone here is projecting into a void, and so I found myself repeatedly questioning whether a line was a deliberate joke or just a piece of clumsy writing. That isn’t a great sign of success.
These last few months have shown that playing Princess Diana is a quick way to snare some acclaim. Emma Corrin became a household name by playing Diana in The Crown. It’s likely that Kristen Stewart will be Oscar nominated for her lead role in Spencer. Sadly, though, Diana: The Musical looks destined to fall short of these accolades. It brings me no pleasure whatsoever to tell you that it isn’t better than a Guinness, and is considerably worse than a wank.