There is a musical called Diana opening on Broadway this coming Thursday, November 17. It’s about exactly what you think it’s about – the life of Lady Diana Spencer, and her trsoubled marriage to England’s Prince Charles. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that you already know exactly what it’s about – that you’ve already seen this musical. It was originally set to open at the Longacre Theatre in March of 2020, but was postponed due to the panedemic; the production was filmed in the empty theatre, and that film has been streaming on Netflix since the beginning of October, by way of promoting the production. Many of my musical theatre friends have seen the Netflix film and know the material already; the more judgmental of them have been…rather vociferous, let’s say.
I haven’t seen this this production, in either its live or Netflix incarnations, so I have no way of knowing if it’s good or not. (For everybody’s sake, I certainly hope the cattier comments I’ve heard are overblown, though I’m not holding my breath.) At any rate, that’s not what interests me about this production. What does interest me is the sheer amount of Princess Diana-related material that’s being released right at this very moment. In addition to the musical Diana, there’s the film Spencer starring Kristen Stewart. And the forthcoming season of The Crown featuring Elizabeth Debicki in the role. And a new docuseries airing on CNN since October, simply called Diana.
Why Princess Diana? Why now?
I was discussing this with friends last week, and their suggestion was that this all had to do with milestone anniversaries. Diana Spencer would have turned sixty this year; next year will mark the twenty fifth anniversary of her tragic death. The numbers add up; the math checks out. My friends all nodded sagely, satisfied with this answer.
I’m not sure that I am, however.
After all, it’s always a significant anniversary for something. This year, for instance, was the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks; we certainly all took solemn note of it, but there wasn’t any huge would-be blockbuster or Netflix series tied to the fact. (Thank the gods.) It’s also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Unabomber’s arrest. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996. The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. The fiftieth anniversary of Shaft. None of which we’ve really taken note of at all, on or off Broadway.
So why Diana? Why now?
My great worry is that, in our time of inflation and supply chain breakdowns, of pandemics and fascism and fascism-assisted pandemics, a significant portion of the audience for these projects is looking back at this woman’s life as a source of nostalgic comfort. “We used to live in the 80s, dammit!” I hear them saying. “And there was a royal wedding with celebrities and glitz and pretty dresses and everything was fun!” The awful irony, of course, is that none of this was fun for Diana Spencer at all, who chafed against this illusion, and who ultimately died at the hands of the very tabloid culture that it spawned. My deep fear with this weird Diana revival going on at the moment is that there’s a scarily large percentage of us who have learnt all the wrong lessons from her tragic life – who have decided that it’s worth the tragedy if you can pretend to live in the fairy tale. Which is precisely not what anybody needs to hear right now.
I hope I’m overreacting; I hope I’m wrong. For that matter, for the sake of the performers in the musical I hope my friends are wrong – but let’s face it, catty musical theater fans seldom are.