Diana: The Musical is a tacky and tactless propanada mission that subverts its own fun flashiness with remarkable bad taste.
When I was thirteen, I was obsessed with Phantom of the Opera. By fourteen, the musical obsession grew to include Les Miserables, before snowballing from there to include just about anything I could afford. What’s special about musical theatre is that it’s an artform that can showcase the best of every other craft, even rivalling film, its ephemerality adding a magical something to the experience. Any opportunity to bring that artform to a larger audience, then, such as Netflix streaming, is something worth supporting, even if reflects a diminishment of the original. So when I tell you that Diana: The Musical is an absolute clusterfuck that should never have been allowed to see the light of day, know that it’s coming from a place of love.
Diana: The Musical, doing exactly what it says on the tin, follows the life of Princess Diana from her courtship with Prince Charles to their doomed marriage and her eventual death, framing the princess’s life as a fairytale gone wrong, complete with jazzy dance numbers and well-oiled production values. If anything can be said for Diana: The Musical it’s precisely that — the whole production is at least somewhat impressive. The stage show pulls off several technical flourishes sure to get oohs and aahs from matinee audiences, such as its rapidfire costume changes exhibiting Diana’s legendary wardrobe, and these moments do still work well when translated to film. But this superficial focus on pageantry above all else belies exactly what feels so wrong about the whole affair: in its attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience, it abandons any kind of actual artistic statement in favor of flashy tricks, resulting in a production that somehow ends up only bland despite (and because of) its wholesale commitment to pomp.
In the few moments that it does step out of its pro forma, feel-good musical comfort zone, Diana: The Musical leaps straight into the wildly offensive. On the mildly uneasy end of the spectrum, the musical offers a girlboss version of Diana, rhyming “bulimia” with “the media” and seeming to expect credit for mentioning her mental health issues while simultaneously skating over them with barely a second glance. Self-harm and suicide attempts are referenced and quickly abandoned, vanished into ballads that hold little emotional weight and make the show actively worse for their inclusion. Carrying on this habit of fence-sitting, the show steadfastly refuses to make a villain of any character, insisting that every member of the British monarchy was just a victim of circumstance, allowing the devastating, pro-establishment implication that the Windsors weren’t instrumental in Diana’s significant traumas. It’s a cowardly position to take, but one that remains blandly inoffensive all the same. The same grace isn’t extended to members of the British press, who are depicted uniformly as vultures and opportunists, instead of as varied individuals trying to survive within a corrupt institution. No, that sort of grace should apparently only be afforded to the powerless, those without control over their own stories, like the literal queen of England. On the more obviously offensive side is the show’s condescending depiction of the working-class Welsh public as a monolith of simpering fools, obsessed with Diana as a form of escapism and unable to form intellectual opinions; this includes a scene featuring Diana’s famed meeting with AIDS patients that really has to be seen in all its stupefyingly poor taste for it to be believed.
In short, any potential for praise, whether in the adequacy of the performers or the fun, flashy production tricks, is overshadowed by just how tactless and tacky the whole production is, and with lyrics like “It’s a Thrilla in Manila / With Diana and Camilla,” even that praise is scarce. With Emma Corrin’s lauded depiction of the royal in The Crown and the much-anticipated Spencer from Pablo Larrain, this newest entry into the Princess Diana industrial complex highlights the absolute worst things a biopic can be, and doesn’t even try to be subtle about its blatant pro-monarchy propaganda mission. God willing, this mess will never get a full Broadway or West End opening, but the recorded version is still available on Netflix and, if nothing else, provides an argument that maybe the inaccessibility of musical theatre to the general public might sometimes be for the best.
You can currently stream Christopher Ashley’s Diana: The Musical on Netflix.