Outside the Longacre Theatre on Broadway the vaxxed and masked queue is four deep for the opening of Diana The Musical.
On this cold New York night, the air is thick with sugar fumes from the doughnut shop on the corner and freighted with expectation.
Here, a post-covid crowd clamour for glamour, they’re in the mood for feel good — and what better than to revisit the life of the former Princess of Wales, played out in a rock opera that purports to be ‘about a woman who chose to be fearless, and as a result became timeless’.
Is that entirely true? For the moment it hardly matters because when the curtain comes down over two hours and two dozen musical numbers later, a state of Di-infused delirium prevails in the 1,000-seat auditorium.
Outside the Longacre Theatre on Broadway the vaxxed and masked queue is four deep for the opening of Diana The Musical. Pictured: : Jeanna de Waal as Princess Diana
The audience are on their feet cheering, as bouquets thump down around the feet of Jeanna de Waal, the actress who plays Diana from the ages of 19 to 36 in a fevered biographical arc that runs the gamut from innocence to icon, from overwrought to underpass while barely pausing for breath.
Diana is written by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics), and directed by Christopher Ashley, whose credits include the Broadway versions of Memphis and Xanadu.
It originally ran for nine performances before being shut down by the pandemic last year and a filmed version has been streaming on Netflix for a few weeks.
Yet to experience Diana in all its queasy glory you have to be in a theatre, sandwiched between grown men sobbing and someone shouting ‘Go Diana!’ every time the Princess shows a spark of pluck.
Now I want to be honest. This American production is deft and energetic with terrific costumes, but it isn’t the greatest musical ever made.
Some of the lyrics are not sublime, but a crime against rhyme for which someone should do time.
The life of the former Princess of Wales is played out in a rock opera ‘about a woman who chose to be fearless’. Pictured: Judy Kaye as the Queen and Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles
‘Oh Harry my ginger- haired son, you will be second to none,’ Diana sings at one point.
Later she wants to tell ‘the truth about Charles and his mistress Camilla — he’s a third rate Henry VIII and she’s Godzilla.’
Yet the audience laps up every pantomime moment and tortured lyric. They gasp when Charles is seen onstage in bed with Camilla and cheer when our heroine insists that Camilla address her correctly.
‘Actually, it’s your royal highness,’ she sniffs. (‘Go, Diana!’) There is even much mocking laughter when HRH hints that her husband Charles is a little lacking in the lovemaking department.
‘He’s not very good,’ she trills, as she romps instead with a topless James Hewitt, oiled up like a Chippendale for her delectation.
It’s meant to be fun, but much of it is rather sad and reductive — these are real people after all, with real feelings.
Diana’s life, like others in her inner circle, was a richly textured narrative fraught with joys and sadness, with bravery and calamity — but there is no room for delicacy of purpose here.
Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf) bumbles around onstage in silken dressing gowns like a paisley patterned Dalek, wringing his hands and longing for ‘unfiltered conversations’ about architecture.
Camilla (Erin Davies) is a dilute Cruella, plotting and moaning about not getting to spend Sundays with her royal lover.
Diana herself is little more than a martyr in the making, simplistic and silly. Oh yes she is! Oh no she’s not!
‘You thought I was a ninny, you could mould me as you like, well the skinny on the ninny, is that she’s really rather bright,’ she sings. Well excuse me for having a whinge, but that’s really rather cringe.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Diana died, yet her haunting presence across stage, screen and page is stronger than ever.
Remarkably, 40 years after she married Prince Charles, her face is once more on freshly printed tea towels and crockery; in the Longacre theatre shop, fans snap up the towels for £17 each, alongside Diana mugs at £18, fridge magnets for £7 each and a zip up hoodie for £43.
Diana is certainly having a moment. Played by Emma Corrin, she featured heavily in the fourth series of The Crown (Netflix) where her unhappiness rises like marsh gas above the swamp of royal life.
In the film Spencer, which opens in the UK this week, Hollywood actress Kristen Stewart plays the Princess unravelling over Christmas at Sandringham. At one point she eats a necklace and then throws herself in front of the guns on a pheasant shoot as the uncaring Windsors look on with disgust.
Was she really that mad? Were the Royals really that bad?
Spencer is beautifully shot, but it is a horror film, rather like The Shining. Directed by Pablo Larrain, it has the Princess throwing up in the Sandringham loos in the first five minutes, later she self-harms with a pair of wire cutters.
‘Mummy, what happened to make you so sad?’ asks little Prince William at one point. Well, quite. ‘I’ve been wondering how they will write about me in a thousand years,’ she says in another scene.
The audience laps up every pantomime moment and tortured lyric. They gasp when Charles is seen onstage in bed with Camilla (pictured: played by Erin Davie)
No one will have to wait that long. But are these fevered depictions of her character what she would have wanted?
Just when one thinks that the bottom has been scraped in the Diana heritage industry, something new floats up from the deep unknown.
Next year there is to be an ‘explosive’ new memoir from Lee Sansum, a bodyguard who was part of Dodi al-Fayed’s protection team ‘and also had to protect Princess Diana’.
Before you ask the obvious, it was apparently only ‘by a stroke of luck that he was not in the car the night Diana died’. But despite the fact that he wasn’t there, his book will offer ‘fresh insight on that tragic night in Paris’.
It is endless. Relentless. Diana The Musical has a good heart, but even here there are some scenes of dubious good taste.
She visits patients in an Aids ward and sings to them. Later she wears a revenge outfit to upstage her husband, referred to as her ‘F*** You Dress’. What?
Sitting in the darkness of the stalls, I found this one dimensional depiction of mean girl Diana completely unrecognisable and even laughable, but the audience couldn’t get enough of her.
After the show, some were in tears, others were confused. ‘Wait, what? You mean she died?’ said one young woman on the way out. A theatre student called Rachel Siegel told me that: ‘I love learning things through music and art.’
Did she think everything she learned tonight was true? ‘Oh yes, of course,’ she nodded.
Elisabeth Adkins from New Jersey had a different view. ‘I am in the same circle of life as Diana,’ she says. ‘We are the same age, we married in the same year to the same kind of powerful men who cheated on us. I identify with her.’
Perhaps that is it. People either identify with Princess Diana, or project onto her in an indulgent way. In a magazine interview, Jeanna de Waal said she believed Diana would ‘definitely’ enjoy the show and that William and Harry would be sure to watch it, too.
Her portrayal of the princess, she added, was informed by studying YouTube clips ‘over and over again’.
Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart said that her performance in Spencer was inspired by Dianas over the years, real or imagined, plus her own ‘obsession’ with watching The Crown.
All these Dianas, past and present, whirling by on a carousel of fable and fantasy, informing the creation of all the faux Dianas to come. Something is cracking in this royal hall of mirrors. And for once it isn’t the Princess of Wales.