‘Diana the Musical,’ Starring Jeanna de Waal, a Foray Into the Tabloids
Billions of words and their attendant photos have attempted to characterize The Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, including the statements she contributed in her well publicized television interviews. Regardless, the many iterations of her life (Diana the Musical, Spencer, The Crown, documentaries, etc.) are fictionalized. We will never know the true details of her story nor move beyond the tip of the iceberg, though much has been made of The Crown’s accuracy.
As a result any commentary, criticism and discussion about the fictions that are presented with or without music related to her life are disingenuous. It is a sly continuation of what raised her to glory and contributed to her death. Recognizing that I am one of the hundreds of journalistic hypocrites, I prefer not to pile on adding to the glossy, hyperbolic, acerbic criticism that has been written about Diana the Musical, directed by Christopher Ashley, currently at the Longacre Theatre.
In this review, I look “through a lens darkly” at the musical with the intention of praising what may be the salient artistry of the production and avoiding the “critics’ mess.” At the least, Diana the Musical will add to the overall evolution of musical theater, for good or ill. As such it should be peered at with more than blindly gleeful excoriations and wrong-headed thinking, albeit critics may assert they have more cache and heft than this humble writer.
The musical, backed by the Schubert Organization and a boatload of other renowned producers, including La Jolla Playhouse, is the work of the creative team of Joe DiPietro (book & lyrics) and David Bryan (music & lyrics). The team won Tonys for Memphis (2010) and other awards, including DiPietro’s Drama Desk for Best Book of Nice Work If You Can Get It. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi (keyboardist) is a Grammy winner. And both have teamed up on their next musical Chasing the Song, also workshopped at La Jolla Playhouse.
The key to understanding their perspective about Diana The Musical is at the top of the production. Right before it begins with its bang-up opening number, “Underestimated”, six PAPARRAZI dressed in tan, flared overcoats with matching hats, looking like “spies” appear amidst flashes of light. Rapidly, like Thespis, the first actor to go solo from the chorus in ancient Greek theater, one PAPARRAZI steps out and says, “Was there ever a greater tabloid tale?” Then all race off.
From the bright light backdrop emerges Diana, the golden-throated Jeanna de Waal who pulls off the waggish theatricality and endearing Diana persona with great flare and emotional nuance. As she sings “Underestimated,” we are reminded that she, the Diana avatar, upended everyone’s expectations and made waves, changing the nature of the monarchy as perceived by the British tabloids and vulture media, astutely turning their word swords into their own “proper entrails.”
Thus, with this PAPARRAZI’S “greatest tabloid tale” establishing the “smart-alecky,” flippant tone, approach and poignant conclusion, we understand the creators’ vision and the development of Diana The Musical as a “tabloid story” in what follows to be a flashback of the press’ “facts” of her life with the royals. Importantly, we are thrust into examining ourselves as the consumers, predators, voyeurs that kept and still keep that story “alive,” the facts confused, and lines, between fictionalized gradations of truth, blurred. As the production infers, the tabloids of the time, principally those of the Murdock empire, became the staging ground for the launching of the princess. They keenly, exploited this image for its money-making potential with suppositions and crass lust for gossipy sensationalism that the public and above all “journalists” “ate up” and still consume in musical plays.
To confuse the medium that the creators expose in all its lurid tawdriness with the conveyance of the subject matter (the production) which twits and exposes the tabloid’s boorish insensitivities is an arrogant presumption. It’s as bad as Facebook’s misinterpretation of sardonic irony. Facebook’s algorithms don’t “get” irony; their robotics are literalists incapable of understanding nuance, irony, sarcasm, ridicule.
Likewise, to view Diana The Musical as a literalist caught up in the arc of the story, clicking off the remembered events one may have consumed from the tabloids, papers, TV series or documentaries, one misses the humor, irony and the sometimes intentionally sophomoric rhymes and cleverly repetitive music. The repetition implies Diana copy was all of the same piece. Additionally, one will miss the unfolding of the final revelations and themes: that tabloids spread misinformation because they can with a believing populace; tabloids act as an equalizer of the great to bring them low to sate the sub rosa jealousy of the “little people;” tabloids mine humiliation, create torment and demean by erecting idols then smashing the “adored” with their humanity. Murdock’s tabloids propelled the Diana “story” and gossipy dirt like no other.
Revolting? Indeed, and that’s one of the points of the musical. Enjoy it and burn yourself with understanding. Don’t enjoy it, see its “messy crassness,” you miss the production’s reason d’etre, and specifically miss this point: the tabloids encouraged the spin of the public’s belief in “the people’s princess,” then damned her for being what they created. They adored her above the Queen and royal family but were jealous of her and backed slapped her continually each time they covered her. Ironically, they yearned for her death, indirectly causing it so they might mourn a tragedy of their creation in perpetuity. To view the monstrousness of the tabloid’s process in Diana The Musical as anything but ironic is daft, dumb and blind.
The tabloid portrait of Diana is what the musical delivers, the glorious creation to please the masses and journalists. She was beautiful copy in all her forms as was the monarchy whom they pitted as her foe. But the production reveals that tabloids refused to take responsibility for their cause in her death. DiPietro and Bryan, in keeping with the phenomenon they criticize and expose (the public’s obsession with her, the press’ sensationalism which exacerbates it) never connects the PAPARRAZI directly to her death. None of the actors dressed as PAPARRAZI appear on stage at the conclusion for she doesn’t die. Diana steps from flashing lights into the upstage darkness as the ensemble sings about her “lighting the world.” It is the image, her persona that “lights the world,” as she lives forever immortalized in fictionalizations: movies, plays, TV series, etc.
In Diana The Musical it is the tabloid’s creatures we see as the well-publicized events of her life are hyperbolized for public consumption. In the musical we witness her dating Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf is wonderful as Charles in his development as the unmarried beleaguered, sometimes loving, then increasingly unhappy, angry, Diana nemesis) encouraged by Camilla (” Whatever Love Means Anyway”). Erin Davie is the perfect avatar for what we believe Camilla would be, do and act to keep Charles allured rather villainously. There are enough jokes concerning her looks and strange sustainability with Charles as she bests Diana in his affections.
The tabloid’s cultural obsession with Diana’s looks, mien and beauty outshining the unfortunate looking Camilla is twitted throughout. The question floats over the relationship as the tabloids played up Diana’s beauty and Camilla’s ferocious mediocrity: how could Charles choose to be with Camilla and not Diana? Clearly, those are the manifestly superficial, shallow cultural mores of tabloid journalism which value appearance over soul. They are not Prince Charles’ values.
Di Pietro and Bryan take us through the Diana chronology, from the marriage (the quick change up of wedding dresses is excellent) the two children, Prince Charles being unable to give up Camilla as Diana must give up the dashing James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). The crises mount until Diana voids her royal position by becoming a fashion icon who scandalously controls the media (the hysterical “The Dress”) as DiPietro and Bryan make their scathing critical ironies with facetious lyrics and buoyant music. It’s not all rock/pop upbeat cadence. Only the humorous waggish songs. Indeed, some of the harmonies are luscious (“If”).
Throughout, Charles’ relationship with Camilla holds, while Diana establishes a solid relationship with her maturing self apart from him, a lost cause. Interestingly, the Queen editorializes about the overwhelming oppression of the monarchy in her own life (“An Officer’s Wife”) which Kaye sings affectingly in the song that identifies how the monarchy’s institutions changed Elizabeth’s relationship with Phillip. In her quasi empathy with Charles and Diana and Charles and Camilla, Judy Kaye’s rendition recalls a similar pathos expressed in The Crown. Only for duty did Elizabeth give up being the demure wife.
The tabloid wind-up dolls act exactly as we expect them to. And there’s even an over-the-top interjection of Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye dressed in fluffy pink from top to toe). Cartland introduces us to James Hewitt as the instrument of vengeance in Diana’s life,”Here Comes James Hewitt”. Kaye as Cartland plies her influence on Diana and comments on Charles and Camilla’s affair, and Diana’s affair with Hewitt (“Him & Her (& Him & Her).”
Having Kaye do double duty as Queen Elizabeth and Barbara Cartland, both the head of empires in their own right, is brilliant and humorous; Kaye plays it off, enjoying the ironic joke. In the beginning of Act II Kaye gives the Queen’s tiara to the music conductor to hold as she switches roles. Cartland’s advice to Diana (a former romance fan) is that her novels are fantasy, romance is dead and in real life, men lie and cheat. The irony that an avatar of romance fiction warns the reigning fairy tale princess of the time that her prince is a cad is priceless.
Finally, the interjection of Andrew Morton (Nathan Lucrezio) who Diana “spills her guts” to (“The Words Came Pouring Out”) is an important addition in the evolution of Diana’s maturing persona as she moves from under the oppression of the monarchy and gains her own revenge. From replicas of the royal’s iconic clothing (William Ivey Long) to the tell-tale hair (Paul Huntley) to the pat twists and turns in the Diana story, all unwind with irony and humor. Interestingly, the ravenous audience and the press are the butt of Di Pietro’a and Bryan’s joke in addition to the royals. Indeed, no one escapes their bullseyes being hit, not even Cartland and Andrew Morton (Zach Adkins).
In keeping with the antic, amused and ironic perspective, many of the songs knock it out of the park. Kelly Devine’s choreography for the “Snap, Click” sinister twirling of the PAPARRAZI around Diana with spinning movement as they thread out their “tabloid tale” is excellent. It conveys the momentum of how storytelling gains a life of its own, as the PAPARRAZI and press become impassioned in their hunt for the prize statement, photo, revelation which they encourage then weave into Diana iconography.
“She Moves in the Most Modern Ways, sung by Kaye’s Queen, Davie’s Camilla, Holly Ann Butler as Sarah Spencer (Diana’s sister confident) Hartrampf’s Charles, Andre Jordan as Colin and Paul Burrell (Anthony Murphy who is also hysterical singing “The Dress” with De Waal, Kaye and the ensemble) works well. It codifies the press’s indictment of the monarchy as stuffily dead with Diana shaking things up as both a benefit and possible liability.
Of course, the theatricality Diana creates is marvelous copy. Throughout the production, Jeanna De Waal does not drop a stitch of the persona in the arc of the press’ vision of her. Her irony, sweetness, fury and flippant attitude beautifully captures the creatives’ vision. The song “This Is How Your People Dance” when Diana listens to Bach with Charles and the others, while imagining a rock concert with her favorites, where all but Camilla “shake it up” is riotous. From that point on it was clear to me what Di Pietro and Bryan were about.
Finally, the creators emphasize the bare bone facts referenced by the media that, understanding what she was up against in her marriage, suffering without proper allies to rescue her, Diana Spencer carved out her own approach to her position in the royal corporation which had “winked at” Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Growing into her own burgeoning identity, she empowered herself, using the media for great causes (the scene in the AIDS ward is poignantly done) that had not been taken up by anyone until she became involved.
Allegedly, for the royals, this was an embarrassingly mischievous and rebellious turn. To the media this was laudatory, though perhaps, self-serving. For Diana personally, we will never understand the mixture of altruism, concern and self-interest. Throughout, the press not unlike with Marilyn Monroe, helped create her charismatic persona which to this day is hot copy. And it is that which Diana The Musical makes very clear with ironic twists that at bottom are an indictment of us all.
This is one to see if you remember that the tastelessness is all on the press and the public who clamored for the avatar Diana and the royals they received. Despite that underlying terrible truth, Diana The Musical expresses that message with humor, silliness, waggish irony and brilliance. Kudos to the creatives: David Zinn (scenic design) Natasha Katz (lighting design) Gareth Owen (sound design) the musical team and Ian Eisendrath (music arrangement and supervision). For tickets and times visit the website by CLICKING HERE.
Posted on November 27, 2021, in Broadway, NYC Theater Reviews and tagged Christopher Ashley, David Bryan, Diana the Musical, Erin Davie, Jeanna de Waal, Joe DiPietro, Judy Kaye, Roe Hartrampf. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.