Diana: The Musical Is Like Springtime For Hitler, But Real

There's a moment in Mel Brooks' immortal comedy classic "The Producers" where a Broadway audience sits stunned, their eyes wide, their mouths agape, as they take in a performance of a musical called "Springtime For Hitler." The production — "A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden," as the official subtitle tells us — is supposed to be a sure-fire flop, all part of a plan from shady con man/Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom. The two men have discovered they can reap a huge profit if they oversell shares in a Broadway production guaranteed to bomb, and "Springtime For Hitler" ("It's practically a love-letter to Hitler!" Max says) surely seems like the perfect failure. 

The same feeling of failure perfected blankets "Diana: The Musical," a stunningly bad new musical that hit Netflix over the weekend. Filmed without an audience on the stage during the height of COVID-19, the musical is destined to premiere on Broadway before the year is out, and the fact that the producers thought it was a good idea to drop the entire thing on Netflix in advance certainly starts to make one feel as if we're witnessing a real-life Bialystock and Bloom scenario. Is this a scam? Are we all being duped? Like the audience in the theatre for "Springtime For Hitler," you will sit watching "Diana" with eyes wide and mouth agape. For nearly two hours you will witness something that doesn't feel so much like a real musical as it does a parody of a real musical. It's like something that would've been a split-second joke on "30 Rock" stretched to feature length. If I were a tasteless person, I would say "Diana: The Musical" is the second horrible car wreck to be associated with the princess. Thank god I'm not that tasteless, though. Perish the thought.

But I come here not to bury "Diana: The Musical," but to ... well, praise it isn't quite right. However there is an undeniable thrill in watching this bargain basement riff on "Evita" from start to finish, especially if you've partaken in an alcoholic beverage or five. The "so bad it's good" threshold is not easily crossed, and more often than not, those bits of art branded as "so bad they're good" are often just bad. But "Diana: The Musical" has cracked the code. It's a cacophonous, dated mash-up of every Broadway parody you've ever seen, only it's real. "Springtime For Hitler" ended up being a genuine hit, sinking Bialystock and Bloom's scheme. But they're lucky they didn't greenlight "Diana," because it has even more potential for "must-see terrible entertainment" than "Hitler."  

A Wikipedia Entry With a Bad Beat

More than two decades since her tragic death, Princess Diana is everywhere. Diana's ghost pops up in Mike Bartlett's play (and its 2017 TV adaptation) "King Charles III." Emma Corrin won rave reviews (and nominations) as Diana in the most recent season of "The Crown," and Elizabeth Debicki will be taking over the role in the new season. And Kristen Stewart seems poised to land her first Oscar nomination playing Diana in Pablo Larraín's "Spencer." And that's just the fictionalized portrayals — there are a smorgasbord of documentaries on Diana lurking about as well. The People's Princess seems more omnipresent now than she even did in life. She has passed beyond the realm of reality and ascended into marble bust territory. Diana is no longer a person. She's an ideal, a legend, a saint. A tragic would-be-queen who died for the sins of tabloid readers everywhere. 

With that in mind it makes sense that someone would want to bring Diana to Broadway, and that's not such a terrible idea. I'm sure someone could produce a thoughtful Diana musical, but "Diana: The Musical," with music by David Bryan, a book by Joe DiPietro, and lyrics by the both of them together, certainly isn't it. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Evita," about First Lady of Argentina Eva Perón, seems to be the primary source of inspiration here. Indeed, the songs — all of which crash together like waves on a beach during a hurricane — even start to sound like "Evita" tunes (there are multiple numbers here that sound eerily similar to the "Evita" song "Rainbow Tour"). Drawing on "Evita" makes sense, since both Diana and Eva Perón are ultimately tragic figures thrust into the spotlight and known for their fashion sense. But "Evita" also has the distinction of having memorable musical numbers, something "Diana" can't lay claim to.

Using sparse staging that always looks cheap no matter where the camera is placed, "Diana" unfolds like a Wikipedia entry with a bad beat, going through Diana's greatest hits while never actually telling us anything about her. While there are multiple moments where Diana, played by Jeanna de Waal, talks directly to us, the audience, there's never a moment where it feels like we know her. Indeed, Diana's enemy Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie) often feels more fleshed out than the princess, and she, too, gets to talk to us, the Aaron Burr to Diana's Hamilton. And like Burr in that much better production, "Diana" wants to rehabilitate Camilla somewhat. Sure, she took part in the destruction of Diana's marriage, but it's not like she was acting alone — Charles deserves more blame, right? But even Charles, played by Roe Hartrampf, is too bland here to seem particularly villainous. If "Diana" didn't want to paint its characters in such stark black and white, good or bad terms, that's fine — commendable, even. But it seems more likely that everyone here is only scratching the surface, presenting bullet points rather than actual emotional scenarios. 

Who The Hell is This For?

So much Diana-focused media is tragic. Diana's eating disorders and self-harm are front and center on both "The Crown" and in the upcoming "Spencer," but those topics only get brushed on here. Perhaps no one wanted to make a two-hour musical that was a non-stop bummer. And while Diana did have a tragic life in the end, not all of her days were spent wallowing in misery. Still, when Diana jumps up on tables here and controls Prince Charles as if he were a marionette on invisible strings, it feels ... weird. And I don't even know how to react when people belt out lyrics like, "It's the Thrilla in Manilla with Diana and Camilla!" Ditto the moment where Diana sings to one of her children, "Harry, my ginger-haired son." Or when she soulfully, and seriously, sings, "Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio!" Moments like that, which are plentiful, will have you sitting up and asking, "What the hell is this?"

So ... who the hell is "Diana: The Musical" for? It can't be for fans of Diana, since the production is so slight, so silly, so void of any real emotion or pathos for the real Diana. Is it for those weirdos who are obsessed with the Royal Family? Or people impatient for a new season of "The Crown," perhaps? Or is this a true wonder; a production tailor-made to be hate-watched? An elaborate "Producers"-like scam that's suckering us all? 

Life is short, so there will be those who simply have no time to sit down and watch the befuddling goofballery that is "Diana: The Musical." But there are some disasters that have to be seen to be believed, and "Diana" is one of them. When a group of paparazzi come dancing out onto the stage wearing trench coats and fedoras as if they were Robert Stack in "Unsolved Mysteries," it's hard not to get swept up in the insanity of it all. The folks in charge of this mess were wise enough not to create a jaunty pop tune for Diana to sing as she dies in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel, but it wouldn't be all that shocking if they had. That's the kind of musical this is. 

Perhaps most confusing of all is the musical's decision to give Charles the last line of the production. Really? You want to give the last word on Diana to the man who helped ruin her life, "Diana: The Musical"? It's a poorly thought-out decision that ends an entire production of poorly thought-out decisions, and it solidifies "Diana: The Musical" as a confounding work of art that has to be seen to be believed. I wouldn't recommend shelling out a chunk of change to catch this thing on Broadway, but from the safety of your home, with a drink in hand (and perhaps some edibles working their magic), "Diana" is bound to be a showstopper, in all the wrong ways.