Next month, a sensitive film portrait of Diana Spencer, simply called Spencer, will begin playing in theaters. Its release will follow a much-ballyhooed film festival tour, eliciting raves from critics who praised director Pablo Larraín’s bold artistry and Kristen Stewart’s thoroughly committed performance. Spencer is poised to be one of the indie arthouse movies of the season, on its way to maybe, just maybe, securing Stewart her first Oscar nomination.
The trouble for Spencer is that it’s just been upstaged, or at least beaten to the punch. Last Friday, Netflix premiered a filmed, eerily audience-less performance of Diana, a new musical about the late Princess of Wales that was set to open on Broadway in 2020 before the pandemic scuttled its plans. Though it will finally make its bow on the Great White Way later this fall, those champing at the bit to see a singing, occasionally dancing Diana and QEII and Camilla Parker Bowles can simply watch Diana at home. The question, then, is this: has Diana ruined it for Spencer?
Quality wise, no. Spencer offers a compelling new take on the lore of Princess Di, depicting her in intimate and probing closeup as she makes perhaps the biggest decision of her adult life. Though Larraín’s film will certainly not be for everyone—tolerances for serious camp varying as they do—it is at least made with true intention. There is a soul behind the piece, animating it and driving it along toward what I guess you could call relevance.
Diana, on the other hand, is a shellacked lump of product born solely of cold, money-minded cynicism. The show, from writer Joe DiPietro and musician David Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame), positions itself as something revelatory, and is advertised as a peek behind the curtain to see what really happened when young Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. It does nothing of the sort. Anyone who has watched Netflix’s The Crown or, I don’t know, briefly skimmed a Wikipedia article will already know pretty much everything that’s clumsily explicated in the musical. And the show avoids much of the true darkness at the heart of the matter, because that probably wouldn’t sync up very well with the whole bombastic, commercial Broadway musical thing.
The musical claims to be telling this story so that we may better understand Diana, to see her as a person, not just an icon. But the production exists entirely to exploit her legacy, to crassly run us through a recitation of known events (and fashion moments) in order to extract more money out of the whole sorry circus. As directed by Tony-winner Christopher Ashley, the show moves at a hurried clip, breezing through major developments as one unmemorable song after another comes burbling out. This is not a considered look at someone’s life; it’s a cash-in that just wants to get to the tragic end, hoping that the audience will convince themselves that they felt something along the way.
Most of Diana’s social media traction thus far has come from people sharing various lyrics from the show, appalled and amused. There is the howler when a man dying of AIDS sings to Diana, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell.” Or a song in which happily scandalized partygoers sing about “a Thrilla in Manilla with Diana and Camilla.” Or Diana lamenting, “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio.” Or Diana cooing to her infant son, “Harry my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none.”
These lyrics are not, as presented in the production, meant to be silly and campy. They are just the stilted, embarrassingly serious ramblings of a show that has no interest in real humanity. It wants only to rhyme and otherwise approximate what it thinks a musical should be—or, at least, what the form was decades ago, at the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End dominance. The production is curiously dated in that way, as if it was found in a pile of Cameron Mackintosh’s old papers and mounted on stage without any effort to contemporize.
The main effect of the musical—quite self-sabotagingly in Netflix’s case, as another heavily Diana-focused season of The Crown is due out next year—is to make us throw our hands up and say enough. No more Diana, please. Let the woman rest. (I realize this may sound rich coming from the digital pages of Vanity Fair—but that’s how strong a repulsion this musical provokes.) Which is where Spencer could maybe be in trouble.
I don’t know how much overlap there will be between Spencer’s likely audience and those who endeavored to slog through Diana. And, really, I have no idea how many people will actually bother to watch Diana at all. But there is a small chance that this gnarly musical could tip the whole Diana-industrial complex into oversaturation, exhausting the topic before Spencer has even had its chance. There are no doubt many people in the world who think that point was reached long ago, but the anticipatory buzz for Spencer suggests that plenty others have not tired of Diana’s story just yet.