It’s rare for a musical to release a filmed version while it’s still on Broadway. Distributing a film of a musical before it’s even opened on the Great White Way is unheard of.
And yet last weekend, the producers of Diana: The Musical released a recording of their show on Netflix. Diana was supposed to open on Broadway in late March of 2020. Then the Covid pandemic hit, and all of Broadway shut down for over a year. Now Diana is finally set to open in early November — but you can already watch the entire thing on Netflix. The two-hour film was recorded last September at the Longacre Theatre without an audience.
The notion of basically giving away something you want people to spend upwards of $150 to see in person flies in the face of decades of conventional Broadway wisdom. The rationale for the decision, according to an article in The New York Times, is that the recorded version is meant to act as a very long commercial for the stage play. “I think people will see the movie and will say, that’s a show I want to see in person,” Diana producer Frank Marshall told the Times.
Under optimal circumstances, this would be a risky marketing strategy. In the case of Diana: The Musical, letting people see the show for free in the hopes they will then pay hundreds of dollars to watch it live is a bit like trying to scam someone into buying swampland in Florida by giving them a kayak tour of the local alligators’ favorite spots. It sounds hyperbolic but this has to be one of tackiest things to ever play on Broadway — not to mention one of the most hilariously bad things currently available to stream on Netflix.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here is an official clip from the show, which features one complete song, “This Is How Your People Dance.” In it, the young Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal) goes on a date to a cello performance with Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf). The stodgy classical music is appropriate for royalty, but Diana prefers modern pop, and so she imagines the concert transforming into a full-on rock show — complete with a moment where she tears off his green dress to reveal a punk outfit underneath, jumps on stage, does an impromptu cello solo, and performs a stage dive into the crowd.
It sounds like I made it all up but you can see for yourself below.
The actors work very hard, and Jeanna de Waal has a lovely voice. The creators aren’t slouches, either; the music and lyrics are by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, whose previous collaborations include the Tony-winning musical Memphis. But something went very, very wrong here. During a confrontation between Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles, the chorus sings “I just got a ticket to the main event! It’s a Thrilla in Manila but with Diana and Camilla!”
This tweet includes some of the more jaw-dropping lyrics from the show. Again, these are all real.
Just a few screenshots of Diana: The Musical pic.twitter.com/yP8QnxqUm4
— Orli Matlow (@HireMeImFunny) October 1, 2021
(Yes, the paparazzi in the show are depicted as a roving band of stalkers who dress in trenchcoats and fedoras like 1940s private detectives.)
There have certainly been Broadway musicals about unfortunate real-life stories before. (A Titanic musical opened on Broadway the same year as James Cameron’s movie premiered in movie theaters, and it won the Tony for Best Musical and played for over 800 performances.) It’s possible to imagine a successful Diana musical. It would look very different than this, but it’s possible. And it’s obvious why someone would at least want to try to produce one; the public’s fascination with Diana’s life has only grown in recent years.
But again, this is the life of Princess Diana we’re watching here. What about her life or death suggests that the right approach involves campy, winking show tunes? Compare the tone of this stuff to the trailer for Spencer, the new biopic about Diana starring Kristen Stewart.Not that there’s one singular way to tell a story, but the difference in the tone of the two is striking to say the least. Shouldn’t a tragic story be told … as a tragedy?
Ironically, the totality of Diana’s disaster may turn it into a classic — at least of the cult kind. It’s the sort of completely and utterly terrible object where every decision seems so obviously wrong that you can’t believe it exists at all. How many dozens of people signed off on a song where Prince Charles sings “Darling, I’m holding my son, so let me say ‘Jolly well done!’” How many millions of dollars were spent on a show where this happens?
Diana the Musical is pure art and that is all I have to say on the matter. pic.twitter.com/6BA0o7YCpC
— Olivia Laydon (@OliviaLaydon) October 2, 2021
Already people on social media are turning some of its more outlandish moments into memes and viral videos. I’m not sure that will be enough to make Diana a financial success on Broadway. (In the age of Covid, I can’t exactly recommend someone literally risk their life just for the chance to laugh at it in person.) But on Netflix I could easily see it becoming one of the more popular titles among fans of so-bad-it’s-good silliness. And why not? Parts of Diana: The Musical make the Cats movie look relatively logical in comparison. At least in Cats no one rhymed thrilla and Manila with Diana and Camilla.