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‘Diana’: A Princess Pop Musical Gone Wrong

A review of Diana, The Musical by Ana Zambrana | November 17, 2021

During a time in which we’ve seen an explosion of content driven by an interest in the British Royal Family, you might expect Diana, to come off as the long-lost sibling to Peter Morgan’s The Crown or Pablo Lorrain’s new film Spencer. Instead, this new production (which is also streaming alongside The Crown on Netflix) has more in common with “Eliza Rocks”, the seven-minute-long pop musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion performed by Lindsey Lohan in the finale of the deliciously absurd Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, than it does with any of the other works about the House of Windsor. 

Diana is a rock/pop musical that fast-forwards through seventeen years of the princess’s life in such a ludicrous manner you’d be forgiven for calling it a farce. In two hours and fifteen minutes, director Christopher Ashley thrusts you through a greatest hits of pivotal events in Lady Di’s years at Buckingham Palace. With the speed and grace of Dominic Toretto, Ashley sacrifices introspection for ear-splitting, exposition-filled numbers with lyrics like “ A pretty, pretty girl wears a pretty, pretty dress”. 

Most narratives about Diana, regardless of form or function, emphasize her innately empathetic soul. ln the delicately made Spencer, Diana’s humanity and fragility are at the forefront, and the fable acts as a window into the inner workings of the princess’s mind, imagining what she might be feeling as she slowly loses her grasp on reality. It’s an internal look at Diana that, despite not being historically accurate, gives Diana, the princess, the chance of being seen as Diana, the person

Ashley’s direction, meanwhile, mirrors the sensationalist lens with which Americans view Diana. With the help of Joe DiPietro (Book & Lyrics) and David Bryan( Lyrics & Music),  Diana’s trauma, a consequence of her eating disorders, her husband’s infidelity, depression, and harassment by the media, are footnotes to the overstimulating showmanship, smothered by grandiose musical punctuations.

Nevertheless the musical isn’t without its moments – the talented cast elevates much of the material, and there is a glimmer of potential in “I Will”, charmingly performed by lead actress Jenna De Waal. When we see Diana in a rather vulnerable moment,  contemplating her future as she steps into her wedding gown, we see what could have been had the show leaned into similar moments of intimacy and transparency. For a second, De Waal’s Diana feels real. 

There’s a moment in “This Is How Your People Dance” where Diana optimistically wonders whether she can “turn [Prince Charles] into a rocker.” When her gown was ripped off to reveal a dress out of  “Like a Virgin”, the audience went nuts. I went nuts with them too as I recalled what I felt watching Hilary Erhard Duff perform “What Dreams are Made Of”. 

Diana has the What a Girl Wants setting, the “Freaky Friday” music, and the Duff/Lohan-like performances, without any of the campy self-awareness. The pop princess movies I grew up with made me who I am, I understand why this way of telling stories is important to young girls. I love what Six does for bright-eyed big-dreaming girls, for instance. Therefore, I can only wince at the mindset that younger me might have developed from the picture Diana paints about what an iconic woman is. Even worse, to think, what young bright-eyed Diana herself would feel, knowing this is how she would be remembered.

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