Television

Hate-Watching’s Too Good for Netflix’s Diana: The Musical

Princess Diana didn’t have a choice. You do.

De Waal wearing a white collared dress and Diana's feathered shag haircut raises her arms at her sides as she sings onstage
Jeanna de Waal in Diana: The Musical. Netflix

Look, I am all for “so bad it’s actually good” entertainment. I have on more than one occasion made friends watch Troll 2. I once sat in a bar for several more hours than I’d planned because they were running a Sharknado marathon and what else did I have to do that day. Diana: The Musical, streaming now on Netflix, wants what those movies have. Or, I guess, to put it in Broadway terms, it wants what Springtime for Hitler—the meant-to-be horrendous musical within The Producers which turns out to be an accidental megahit—has. It dooms itself from the beginning by attempting to straddle the line between austere, historical drama, à la The Crown, and the camp and glitter of an ’80s pop music video.

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Diana: The Musical was meant to open in March 2020, but, well, you know what happened next. Over a year later, the show is slated to hit Broadway in November, with the proshot version hitting Netflix a month earlier to—in theory—drive up ticket sales. It’s hard to imagine anything but the opposite happening here. Watching this thing will make you wish humanity had never learned to rhyme. It will convince you we should ban children from reading Dr. Seuss books lest they be inspired to grow up to write something this painful. (Warning: Spoilers ahead but really you should just read them and save yourself two hours of watching this mess.) “She’ll have a place in our history books and forever she’ll be judged by her looks,” the chorus sings in the opening number, setting the tone for what you’re about to endure for the next hour. Actually, by comparison to what’s coming—take a moment to savor that line. You’ll long for it by the time Diana starts inexplicably belting a love song to Charles in Spanish. Or when you start mentally tallying the number of words this show rhymes with tart. Or when Diana visits an AIDS ward in a hospital and a patient sings, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell” and she offers to send him a case of eyeliner.

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Punctuating the entire show are the paparazzi, the unrelenting press who hounded Diana literally to her death. Onstage, they are a choreographed mass of swirling trench coats, like a flock of vultures—which might make for decent, if obvious symbolism if the show just left you to mentally connect the dots instead of beating you over the head with it and having the paps actually refer to themselves as vultures. These vulturazzi are the source of Act 1’s best clunker of a line, “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank / Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank.” In Act 2, Prince Charles tells Diana it’s her “fault” their marriage has come to a “halt” and to “stop being a martyr” and be “smarter.” Once again, you’ll find yourself longing for the banality of “looks”/“books.”

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The problem here isn’t rhyming wank and bank, really. There’s a world where that’s dumbly funny, where having British romance novelist Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye)—Diana’s stepgrandmother—pop in and out of the show as an omniscient, if unreliable narrator in a frilly pink dress might actually work. But just when you think the show is going to allow you to fully immerse yourself in an insane fantasy and accept that it has veered so far from reality that the characters might as well be fictional, it tries to convince you that it is serious. Diana, played by Jeanna de Waal, sings “I Will”—a catchy number till you realize you’re actually just humming along to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”—in the panicked moments before her wedding to Charles, as though this entire thing isn’t building up to her violent death and as if she has any control over this situation. At every turn the show’s attempts to give Diana’s character agency only serve to insult her memory. “My future is my design, my story is finally mine,” she sings in the final number before the car crash, as if that were ever true. De Waal has said she believes, if she were alive, Diana would “definitely” enjoy the show.

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Nowhere do you want Diana: The Musical to just go full Rocky Horror Picture Show so much as at the opening of Act 2 when Diana’s lover rises, shirtless, from a trapdoor in the floor atop a saddle. He and Diana have an innuendo-laced conversation about learning to ride his horse—one that prompts Barbara Cartland to turn to the audience and admit that she made it up, as though that statement doesn’t apply to the vast majority of the musical. The second act is full of these meta-moments. Camilla and Diana and Charles duke it out inside a boxing ring as friends look on, “the Thrilla in Manila with Diana and Camilla.” (Camilla also gets rhymed with “Godzilla,” lest you think this show skipped that particularly poetic opportunity.) Diana’s infamous off-the-shoulder “revenge dress” gets its own number too, called “The Dress.” She’s described as “a bitch on wheels in 6-inch heels” and the chorus, over and over, calls the LBD “the feckity-feckity-feckity-feckity-feck you dress” (a slightly, uh, cleaner version of the song than the version I saw during a preview back in 2020, presumably tidied up for Netflix’s sake).

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But in between all this, Diana: The Musical tries over and over again to give the show gravitas where it ought to just fully commit to whimsy. The creators clearly did not have the feelings of, say, Diana’s two children in mind while making this thing. In the final scenes, as the queen grants the couple a divorce and Diana declines royal security, she’s singing about deciding to “choose happiness,” to “choose whatever lies ahead.” That’s the paradox of the entire show. Diana did not have any choice in the matter. You, however, do have a choice not to watch this thing. Choose wisely.

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