In Defense of ‘Diana,’ the Show We Didn’t Deserve

Broadway’s comeback season was a hurricane. Not even the heavily awarded revival of a Sondheim favorite like “Company” could withstand shaky ticket sales brought on by a pandemic-wary theatergoing community.

There was still much to praise, and much that will be seared into memory. But more than most other musicals that opened last season, the one whose songs and sheer audacity stand the best chance to live on in my heart — and on my shower playlists — is the one that shone briefly, amid a deluge of vitriol.

The one that played a mere 59 performances, and whose Netflix presentation won five Razzie Awards: the ill-fated “Diana, the Musical.”

This week, Roe Hartrampf, the show’s nefarious Prince Charles, will play a two-night engagement at 54 Below, joined by Jeanna de Waal (who portrayed Princess Diana) and, also on the first night, Erin Davie (Diana’s rival for Charles’s affections, Camilla Parker Bowles).

Though they won’t be singing from its score, Hartrampf said the musical will be cheekily referenced throughout.

At rehearsals for the club act — ironically enough, at a Midtown studio across from the Longacre Theater where they once reigned — the three reminisced with a mix of good humor and workmanlike acceptance. A promotional blurb for the concert, after all, nods knowingly at Hartrampf’s Razzie nomination, and the brief Broadway run.

It also makes reference to the Netflix fiasco that followed after the musical premiered on the streaming service months ahead of its Broadway opening. Recorded without an audience in the middle of the pandemic shutdown, it landed with a thud and that response helped determine its eventual fate.

“Part of the struggle was that the audience didn’t know what to expect from a musical about Diana,” Hartrampf said after the rehearsal. “They were sort of waiting for us to tell them, ‘You can laugh because this is a comedy, or stay quiet because it’s a drama.’ They needed to be shown what this piece was going to be.”

When I reviewed “Diana” in November, I called it a “giddy orgy of theatrical excess” that combined the “preposterous high gloss” of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with “‘The Simpsons’ ’ innate understanding of the overly-literal silliness that makes the form work.”

By the time I attended the musical’s premature final performance barely a month later, the cast had leaned all the way into the absurdity. The hyperkinetic ensemble (some of the most all-out, on-point dancing of the season) was cheeky as ever, but the lead actors seemed to be in on the fun, too. De Waal’s naughty wink had grown more flamboyant, and the cast reveled in the extravagance of her expletive-laden song about the dress Diana wore to show up her romantic rival.

“It was always supposed to be a rock show, it always had humor, and it was always supposed to be heightened,” de Waal said.

De Waal and Hartrampf in a musical number in which Diana imagines herself in a disco instead of at a classical music concert.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Though the losers at the Razzies named her worst actress, de Waal’s extraordinary, vocally gymnastic performance earned a Drama Desk nomination. I would have handed her a Tony nomination, too, with a special citation for Grace Under Internet Fire. She’d already been apologizing for the Netflix special by the time the show opened, and kept off social media throughout its run.

De Waal’s performance sold me on the idea that Diana Spencer was a 19-year-old robbed of a comfortable young adulthood, cynically plucked by stuffy royals for good optics, then discarded once her personhood got in the way. (That problem hasn’t gone away.) Her Diana was temperamental, petty and crass, but ultimately winning.

The music, by the Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, was as arena-ready as you’d expect, calling back to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s early marriage of rock bombast and theatrical silliness (Exhibit A: “Evita.”) The lyrics (by Bryan and Joe DiPietro) were scarcely more profound than a “Live Laugh Love” poster but, sung with full force, they stuck like Super Glue. Diana’s “I could use a prince to save me from my prince,” rather silly on paper, came across as a primal scream.

And the director Christopher Ashley, a Tony winner for his work on “Come From Away,” kept “Diana” moving as seamlessly and hypnotically as the princess’ frenzied, tabloid-ready life. (Nathan Lucrezio, who played her biographer Andrew Morton on Broadway, will appear in Hartrampf’s act as well.)

Among the criticisms aimed at “Diana” was that it exploited a real woman’s tragic story for pop consumption. To that point: Every biographical narrative can be said to be inherently reductive and exploitative. If the director Pablo Larraín and the actress Kristen Stewart can (deservedly) score awards love for their cinematic take on Diana as the “final girl” in a horror movie (2021’s “Spencer”), I see no reason this musical should be punished for molding the source material to fit the form’s razzle-dazzle structure.

Was “Diana” tasteful or poetic? Definitely not. But it was fun. Remember fun? So many productions this season didn’t, setting their sights instead on scoring political points, to varying success and an even dimmer sense of play.

You have to take a work on its own terms, and “Diana” set them 10 minutes in, when the soon-to-be princess took over cello duties from Mstislav Rostropovich and did a stage-dive into a royal crowd as Prince Charles did the robot. This fantasy sequence — illustrating how Diana would rather be on a date at a disco than at a dreary classical concert — reflected the show’s unapologetic commitment to pop maximalism.

Though biographical obligations sometimes strangled the book, even its narrative failings were saved by outlandish directorial choices. (If you somehow forgot the dizzy tone during intermission, Act 2 opened with Diana’s secret lover, the riding instructor James Hewitt, shirtless astride a saddle, shrieking a fierce high E.)

“As much as there was this group of people who loved it,” said Davie, at right, “there were others who were like, ‘How dare you?’”Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

I count the glitzy show among works that, pardon my youthfulness, “slay”: highlighting the improbable achievements of an underdog (usually a woman) with the subtlety of a six-foot sword, and twice its shine.

It’s what makes Dolly Levi’s arrival at the Harmonia Gardens so glamorous; Evita’s “Rainbow High” fashions so decadent; Momma Rose’s ambition so delicious. The spectacle of someone transcending their given situation is woven into the fabric of musical theater; Diana quick-changing through several outfits in one number, as she announces her plan to reclaim her visibility, had that in spades.

Still, Davie admitted, “it turned a lot of people off. As much as there was this group of people who loved it, there were others who were like, ‘How dare you?’”

As with many a critically reviled Broadway musical, those who loved it banded together, nicknaming themselves “Difanas.” They clung to the gowns, the belting, the insane boldness of an AIDS patient singing to the princess, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell.”

One such fan, Lizzie Milanovich (who uses they/them pronouns) designed a custom “Diana” sweater and then tweeted an offer, expecting a few inquiries. They wound up fielding 180 orders, they told me, including one for Hartrampf.

“We have to credit Twitter so much for creating the audience that we did have,” Hartrampf said. “The week the movie came out, Twitter was rough. But then the backlash to the backlash was so wonderful, with people defending our show and taking ownership of the material, and understanding what the show was meant to be.”

Attendees at its final performance were the girls and the gays — theater aficionados, writers and performers who have gone down enough YouTube rabbit holes to know a diamond, however rough, when they see one.

Mark my words: The show is primed for another look. Consider “Legally Blonde,” currently enjoying a critical re-evaluation thanks to a Lucy Moss-directed London revival, and continuing social media affection for its original, bubble gum pink production.

Or consider the recent interest in revising the narratives around stars like Britney Spears, women devalued and discarded until a new generation happens to “rediscover” their worth. (Moss’s own “Six,” about an earlier set of royals, the wives of Henry VIII, gets ahead of the curve by directly addressing this schism.)

I cannot wait for a group of downtown drag queens to mount a low-budget, high-camp production of “Diana” in 10 years. They’ll know exactly how to play it. Maybe that’s why a local queen bringing de Waal onstage to sing “Underestimated,” the musical’s opening solo, during show tunes night at a Fire Island Pines club — on the evening of the Tony Awards, no less — felt so spectacularly appropriate.

Her soaring vocals in the fabulous finale live on through my headphones. While Sondheim’s oeuvre is the reason I sleep well at night, it is sonic moments like these that get me up in the morning.

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