“Diana: The Musical” on Netflix Review
British history told as a Disney princess movie knockoff, just a bit more raunchy.
“Then there's Charles, who's happy when
He hears music by dead white men.
Perhaps his girl could turn hin into a rocker!"
"Darling, I’m holding our son
So let me say, jolly well done!"
“Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio.”
Yes, these are all real lyrics.
“Diana: The Musical”, a musical based on the life of Princess Diana with music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, and book by DiPietro, hit Netflix on 1st October 2021 to outrage and amusement in equal measure. Some viewers found it absolutely hilarious while others thought it was an insult to musical theatre and British history alike. Either way, the consensus was: it’s bad. Not only is it bad, it is so… American that it’s hard to believe it’s not an elaborate prank.
But is it so bad it’s good or is it just not worth your time? Read on to find out!
Most people know the gist of Princess Diana’s story. A sweet and innocent young girl from an aristocratic family marries Charles, Prince of Wales. The marriage is miserable for both of them for many reasons including the oppressive rules imposed on the young princess by the royal family and Charles’s long-standing affair with his married mistress. The musical hits most of the main beats, briefly touching upon Charles and Diana’s courtship before quickly getting them married and focusing on the crumbling of their relationship over the years, leading to their eventual divorce and very suddenly arriving at the princess’s tragic death in a car accident. Some notable moments include Diana’s first visit to Wales as the start of her rise to fame, her surprise performance at the Royal Ballet Christmas Gala which enrages Charles, the birth of Prince Willian and Prince Harry, her struggles with depression and self-harm, her affair with army man James Hewitt, her visit to an AIDS clinic, a confrontation with Camilla at a party and Diana’s ultimate decision to anonymously tell her story to writer Andrew Morton who later became famous for his book about her. While the plot covers a great number of events, it seems to glide on the surface of all of them, never really achieving real depth or emotional impact, not even with its protagonist’s untimely death.
There are certainly things which could and should have been explored more. For example, the scene at the AIDS clinic offers a lot of opportunities but ultimately fails to deliver to its full potential, especially since the featured gay character acts like a cliche and chats to Diana about mascara because - gay people!
If you only watch the show and have no idea of the real story behind it, you just might be left with the impression that the main conflict in the royal family was about Diana being cute and trendy and Hollywood and Charles being jealous of that. It’s almost like one of those dime-a-dozen Hallmark Channel Christmas movies about a down-to-earth American marrying the prince of an imaginary European country and turning the monarchy on its head with her modern ideas about being one of the people. Except, you know, without the happy ending.
The style of music not necessarily matching the real-life circumstances of the story is not a problem in and of itself. After all, George Washington never heard rap music in his life but “Hamilton” is a work of genius. However, in the case of “Diana: The Musical” the bouncy pop-rock score only serves to underline how vapid the whole thing is and further strip it of any gravitas. I cannot shake off the feeling that the inspiration for all of this was Disney princess movies. Especially in the first half, Diana may as well be Rapunzel, or Anna, or Belle, or Ariel, singing about how quirky and progressive she is in a rigid world that doesn’t understand her. The sound is spot on but, overall, the music doesn’t quite reach Disney quality, putting me more in mind of a semi-decent Disney knock-off. The tunes, while certainly not unpleasant to listen to and occasionally quite hummable, fail to leave a real impact and the lyrics are sometimes truly cringey. There were one or two numbers that I kind of liked, one or two that I really hated (“Happiness” is a true abomination, as well as “The Main Event”) and the rest was just kind of okay. Mind you, there are a lot of songs in this! I usually love musicals which are entirely sung but it takes a great composer to make that work properly. You need to be skilled with repeating motifs and the whole thing needs to be cohesive. This felt more like an excess of random songs, many of them about the same thing - Charles and Diana’s marital problems and/or Diana’s relationship with the media.
The Cast and Characters
The main cast of characters is not very large. It includes the prince and princess, Charles’s mistress Camilla Parker Bowles, Queen Elizabeth, Diana’s sister Sarah, Diana’s own lover James Hewitt and the occasional appearance of a background character or two, such as Camilla’s husband, Diana’s butler and, somewhat inexplicably, Diana’s step-grandmother - novelist Barbara Cartland (Why??). Her children are only really mentioned, if you don’t count Prince William being portrayed by a baby doll and carried around by his parents during what is possibly the worst song in the show - “Happiness”.
The show stars Jeanna de Waal as Diana, Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles, and Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth. I feel a little bit bad for the actors involved in this because they’re doing a decent job with what they’ve been given. It can’t be fun being part of a musical which is getting so much negative press before it’s even opened on Broadway. None of the portrayals are particularly accurate but if you ignore that fact, the cast themselves are charming enough and vocally talented. By far the most (unintentionally?? I can’t even tell!) hilarious portrayal is that of Queen Elizabeth (Broadway veteran Judy Kaye) who is an absolute caricature. I don’t think we can blame the actress - her lines and musical numbers are kind of ridiculous. She acts and sounds exactly like a stock queen from an animated movie. All of those films over the years that have included somewhat satirised versions of Elizabeth as a character, such as "Minions" and "The BFG"? That’s what this queen is like. For pity’s sake, at one point she talks about herself in the third person during a song, proclaiming (to the sound of yet another bouncy tune) that “her majesty is in distress, this travesty she must address”. Come on! Then right after that she gets to sing what is supposed to be a touching ballad called “An Officer’s Wife” about her happy times with her husband before she had to be queen. The effect is, to put it mildly, comedic, and the chorus marching behind her, dressed in uniforms, with utterly unearned pathos doesn’t help matters. What I was a bit surprised by is that, despite being too cartoony, this is a rather kind portrayal of the monarch. She comes off as witty and ultimately benevolent. I find it hard to believe her relationship with Diana was this amicable or that she was so understanding.
The same actress also appears several times throughout the show in the campy-as-all-hell role of romance novelist Barbara Cartland whom, apparently, Diana was a fan of even before the writer became her step-grandmother. Her inclusion is an interesting idea but in the final product it is a bit jarring. She is very obviously played for laughs and serves to give Diana practical advice about romance and, later, to introduce her hot lover in one of the rounchier songs. This would have made perfect sense if the show had gone further down the comedy route but, as it is, the character pops out of nowhere and doesn’t fit too well with the rest of it.
While I admit I wasn’t as invested in Diana herself as the show wanted me to be, actress Jeanna de Waal is pretty well cast. She does occasionally capture some of the real Princess of Wales’s attitude and mannerisms, despite adding perhaps a little more sass than strictly realistic. She deserves a mention.
My favourite character and portrayal by far is that of Camilla. I felt like she was the only one who actually left an impact and she had the best little moments. She easily steals the spotlight as the more interesting and nuanced character. Erin Davie’s perfomance is touching and believable and I was left actually caring about what happened to her and her romance with Charles. Charles himself is perhaps a bit more winsome and likable than would be expected but that’s not necessarily a bad thing - at least the show doesn’t resort to cartoon villains.
The Overall Look
The visual design is relatively simple as a concept but effective. It manages to convey opulence with the help of several key set pieces and a lot of varied lighting. Predictably, there are a whole lot of costume changes and perhaps a little too much attention is paid to Diana’s famous outfits. Ultimately it looks pretty, if a little Vegas-y, as another reviewer pointed out, although the way the paparazzi dress and behave leaves me with the impression that they are about to flash us something other than their cameras. The chorus is constantly performing hilariously bouncy choreography to go with the hilariously bouncy score but it’s not bad as such - just not appropriate to the tone I feel we should be going for. The filming for Netflix is very nicely done but I wouldn’t expect any less.
Final Thoughts: Redeeming Qualities and Why It Should Have Been a Comedy
While “Diana: The Musical” certainly deserves to be laughed at and no critic in their right mind would give it a good review, I don’t think it deserves to be hated. It’s an entertaining sort of mess and I giggled my merry way through it. Its shallowness can be seen as insulting but the truth is that these kinds of inch-deep portrayals of public and historical figures are ultimately unavoidable. As far as accuracy goes… Once again taking "Hamilton" as an example, all of the characters in that show are stylised and modernised versions of their historical inspirations. The difference is, of course, that "Hamilton" makes me want to laugh, cry and start a revolution all at the same time, while "Diana" makes me want to stuff popcorn in my mouth and come up with witty ways to mock it.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the show has absolutely no merit.
As mentioned before, one of the things I was unironically invested in was the relationship between Charles and Camilla. There’s a compelling story somewhere in there which occasionally peeks through the fluff. “I Miss You Most on Sundays” is a touching song. Camilla’s long-awaited introduction to the queen feels like more of a resolution than Diana regaining her freedom. And even when it misses the mark, the show at least attempts to have emotion. From the little research I’ve done, it appears that things were worse during previews and improvements were made before “Diana’s” Netflix debut. That at least shows a desire and ability to learn from mistakes. There is obvious effort that went into the production and, well… it’s really funny, albeit often when it doesn’t mean to be.
The great tragedy here is that if the creators had fully leaned into the comedy, if they had intended it as a parody or a satire with maybe a bit of an emotional centre, that could have worked and I think the final result could have been well-received. As some other reviews have pointed out, we really have a bit of a “Springtime for Hitler” on our hands. (If you don’t know where that reference means you should really watch “The Producers”.) But, ultimately, I’m glad I saw it and I look forward to having many hilarious evenings rewatching it with friends who haven’t seen it.