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Smooth Bananas: Netflix’s ‘Diana’

Content related to the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, has had something of a resurgence in recent years with a feature film featuring Kristen Stewart in the title role. However, I don’t think anyone had a Hamilton-style history musical in mind.

The musical, with music by David Bryan and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, tells the story of the royal sensation Diana Spencer who married into the British royal family via Prince Charles, the son of Queen Elizabeth II. The film originally ran at La Jolla Playhouse at the University of California-San Diego. Spencer is played by Jeanna de Waal; Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’ mistress, is played by Erin Davie; Prince Charles is played by Roe Hartrampf; and Queen Elizabeth II is played by Judy Kaye. The filmed version is currently streaming on Netflix.

As far as musical complexity goes, the musical doesn’t have much going for it. Most of the songs in the show stay in a standard four-quarter time and only show occasional forays into more diverse time signatures. The melodic and harmonic material is slightly limited by this but, with a musical about a sensational princess in the 80s, one can’t really expect something incredibly outside the vein of the subject’s time period.

The songs in the musical progress in an unsatisfying manner. Rather than ramp up the tension along with the storyline of the show, they feel more like fence posts which leads to some disjointedness between the musical tension and the narrative tension. This is often a symptom of musical theatre.

Most musicals run an even two-ish hours and thus, many musicals try to stretch events out into enough songs that can fill that time. With a historical musical, it can be even more severe because, for the most part, we only have a clear idea of the big moments in a person’s history. The book writer must stretch and embellish things to fill the time and the songwriter often wants to stretch things even more. And hence, we get a two-hour musical with musical numbers that are each roughly two to three minutes each.

There are some standout songs from the musical despite its other shortcomings. “I Will,” describing Diana’s promises to Charles and the royal family on their wedding day, is a swell of emotion that the musical hasn’t had up to that point. “Secrets and Lies” is another emotionally charged scene that depicts Diana’s visit to an AIDS ward right in the middle of the AIDS crisis in the 80s. Despite Diana’s clear and positive effect on the patients, one cannot be quite moved by the fact that these gay men are more concerned with the fact that they could lose everything if they are photographed with Diana. The bleak reality described in the scene is hard to imagine for many young LGBTQ+ people today.

Critics are absolutely decimating the musical despite its charm. It presents a positive and triumphant light to Diana’s life. The extremely negative critic reception might be tied to the incredible fervor and popularity of the late Princess of Wales and how she spent the last years of her life. 

“Diana” receives a C-plus rating.

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