Musicals are a peculiar art-form. On a purely superficial level, we ask audiences to accept that a character would suddenly burst into song, when no person in their right mind would ever do this in real life, except for comedic effect or to annoy people in their immediate vicinity. When someone says they’re not a fan of musicals, it’s almost always for this reason — “I don’t mind the big song and dance numbers, but I HATE it when they randomly start singing about their feelings in the serious moments.” (Opera receives similar derision, although arguably the continual oscillation between recitative and aria makes the practice less jarring.) What the haters might not fully appreciate is that a good musical doesn’t just incorporate singing for the sake of it. A character should sing because speaking is no longer enough. Singing allows a character to stop time — to pause on a single syllable, word or thought, and give it nuance and an emotional depth that’s unreachable in speech. If you find yourself rolling your eyes in a musical, it’s often to do with bad writing; the character hasn’t yet earned the ‘right’ to sing, so for them to do so is to rip the audience out of the moment, in the same way that it would be unnerving in real life.
This is the fundamental and unavoidable flaw of Diana: The Musical, the newest collaboration of writer Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan, who both also co-wrote Memphis. DiPietro’s book and the ensuing lyrics co-written by Bryan have absolutely nothing interesting, insightful or fresh to say about Diana Spencer, any member of the Royal Family, monarchism, British people, paparazzi or corgis (which are inexplicably missing from the production altogether). As a result of the complete lack of profundity throughout the entire show, the singing (which feels almost incessant) is completely unearned, creating moments of frequent awkwardness as characters sing at each other about what’s happening. There is so much singing throughout that when some genuinely heart-rending moments approach — such as Diana trying to find the right moment to tell Charles she’s pregnant during one of his petulant tirades — a softly spoken or even whispered “I’m pregnant” would have contrasted beautifully and packed ten times the emotional punch of the fifteenth clunky power ballad. It reads more like a series of conversations and arguments set to music, rather than a piece of art intending to shed new light on one of the world’s most recognisable and tragic public figures.
What makes Diana: The Musical especially frustrating is that almost every facet of the production itself is impeccable. The set design is ingenious, cleverly shifting and manipulating space and perspective with a dazzling array of moving parts that momentarily cause you to believe they just dropped a cathedral on the stage. Christopher Ashley’s crisp direction and the scene transitions are deft, fluid and mercifully keep the show moving at a brisk pace. The costumes are magnificent and the show is a masterclass in quick changes — a couple are genuinely astounding and rewind-worthy (although no doubt aided in this recording by some fancy TV editing magic). Kelly Devine’s choreography is intuitive, never obtrusive until it needs to be and sharply executed by the strong ensemble. It’s a shame that the musical itself is so thunderously undeserving of all of this.
The individual lead performances are also generally strong, particularly Jeanna de Waal's Diana and Erin Davie as Camilla Parker-Bowles. They both provide effective foils to Roe Hartrampf's Charles, and all three elevate the musical material to a level it simply couldn't occupy on its own. Judy Kaye's Queen Elizabeth II rounds out a solid quartet, although not even her inbuilt gravitas can sidestep the clunky and mawkish lyrics:
"Love's not what you expect. Love rarely is direct. Love changes everyday. Well, whatever love means, anyway." - Queen Elizabeth II, apparently
It's almost unbelievable that the author of the acerbic and witty I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and Diana: The Musical is the same person.
Setting this subject material to a contemporary over-the-top pop/rock score was a gamble that did not pay off. Despite a handful of beautiful moments, most often provided by the ensemble harmonies, Bryan’s songs alternate between drab and maudlin which, for a rock show, is particularly unforgivable. A couple of the full company numbers bring a welcome heightened energy in the moment, but still ultimately contribute little to the overall experience due to the stale and unimaginative treatment of the story. Villainous paparazzi stalk Diana and Charles (“Snap, Click”) while swishing their cloaks and menacingly flashing their cameras. We get it, paparazzi are scum. Yawn.
Before watching Diana, I was curious about how her devastating and untimely demise would be treated. Personally, this was the most affecting moment of the entire production. Following a number of newsflash headline excerpts from the time immediately following the car accident, which are read aloud by members of the company, Diana walks slowly towards the back of the stage, accompanied only by the click-clack of her heels and gradually diminishing strobes, until she simply disappears from view. It's a seriously beautiful moment of theatre. If Ashley and Friends had had the good sense and courage to simply let this moment end the show, it just might have managed to make a comment about the context of the unbridled, assaultive campiness of the preceding two hours. Instead, what occurs is 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' in the extreme, as the cast takes one final opportunity to scream in our face what can only be described as one of the worst lyrics ever penned:
"The people who will change the world ARE NOT THE ONES YOU THINK WILL CHAAAANGE THE WOOOOOORRRRLD!"
Even Chess, another much-maligned pop/rock musical that also happens to feature queens and typewriters, at least had the common decency to be original. Diana: The Musical is a royal flush (and not the good kind).
Diana: The Musical is s(t/c)reaming on Netflix now.