EXCLUSIVE: TALKING THE NEW MUSICAL ‘DIANA’

Diana

In “Candle In The Wind ’97,” Elton John sang “Your candle’s burned out long before your legend ever will” about the tragic death of Princess Diana. Beginning next week, that candle is being relit on Broadway with the royal arrival of Diana, an all-new musical about the short but inspiring life of The People’s Princess.

Nearly a quarter of a century after Diana’s passing, Tony Award-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away) and the Tony Award-winning writing team of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (Memphis; The Toxic Avenger) are bringing her legendary story to the stage with costumes by six-time Tony Award-winning designer William Ivey Long (Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella; Hairspray). 

The musical’s cast includes Jeanna de Waal (Kinky Boots; American Idiot) as Diana, Broadway newcomer Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie (Sunday in the Park with George; Side Show) as Camilla Parker Bowles, and two-time Tony Award-winner Judy Kaye (Nice Work if You Can Get It; The Phantom of the Opera) as Queen Elizabeth. 

Diana begins previews March 2 before an official opening on March 31. At a first-look event in celebration of the show at The Lotte New York Palace, I spoke with de Waal, Hartrampf, Kaye, and Long about Diana’s enduring legacy, the timeliness of her story still today, transforming into members of the British royal family, and more.


Diana


Why is now the perfect time to tell Diana’s story? What makes it so relevant in 2020?

WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Diana’s story is becoming more and more important as the years go on, isn’t it? It seems that history is unfortunately repeating some of itself, which history does do. Diana’s children are going through some of the same media attention and the same interest in their lives that she did, and that turns into a nightmare. There are many people who feel the paparazzi actually hounded her to her death. Many feel that the car chase was because of the paparazzi. I don’t think that was in the police report, but some people feel that way and I think her younger son certainly feels that way. So it’s all becoming front page news again and it rings a bell.

Since it is all happening again, I think it’s so important that we tell Diana’s story. It’s permission to tell the story of this extraordinary life. She lived a very short life, but a very extraordinary one. It started from innocence and transformed into how she dealt with a fairy tale expectation and things coming at her that no one knows how to react to. She dealt with joy and tragedy, betrayal and ultimate triumph. Once she realized the power she had, Diana addressed causes that she supported and things she believed in. That made her really take off and become one of the most famous women in the world. That remains an inspiration.

JEANNA DE WAAL: In 2020, Diana’s story is still as impactful as it was—if not more—because it’s the origin story of so many things that are in our press today. She managed to humanize the royal family and there’s this expected transparency now that never existed before her. Now we’re so receptive to people following their own light, being who they authentically are, following their own weirdness, and all those things. Diana was one of the first people to really do that and embody not apologizing for who you are. It’s an insight into how far we’ve come in just 30 years, where that was not the norm. And now in 2020, we are very much about encouraging messages like “you are special” and “you have your own purpose” and all of that.

JUDY KAYE: It’s always been a good time to tell the story but I think we have a distance from the events now that gives us a vantage. We can look back at the history and how it changed the world as these people knew it, and how it has changed the world for the people who are here now. All of these people—Joe and David and Christopher and [choreographer] Kelly [Devine] and all of us—have come together at this time and I think it makes it timely and perfect for the telling.

ROE HARTRAMPF: I think that a story about a woman at 19 entering into one of the most powerful families in the world, without a real sense of self or a real sense of what she wanted out of the world, and transforming herself into one of the most influential women in the 20th century is the perfect story for 2020.

What has your research process consisted of as you land on your interpretations of these historic figures?

HARTRAMPF: I am such a research nerd and one of my favorite parts of this process has been looking through biographies and learning about books that Charles read that influenced him. Finding and reading those books has been really wonderful. I did lots of deep dives into YouTube clips and archival footage. One of my favorite interviews that I found was a BBC radio interview, which I believe was the first time that the UK heard his voice on the radio. At that point, he was still in university, and he was describing to an interviewer his sketch troop – this group of guys that he would do little Monte Python-esque sketches with. He actually does a funny voice of a character that’s very high-pitched and something you would not expect from a person who we now consider to be very serious and with a lot of responsibility in the world. To hear him as a young man just wanting to make people laugh was really eye-opening.

DE WAAL: Luckily, there are more YouTube videos than you could ever watch. Therefore, it was kind of an outside-in process in many ways. I watched so many videos to really get a sense and feel of who Diana is, how she moves, how she talks, and how she holds herself. Once I had that, I started to read her letters, Andrew Morton’s biography, and all that sort of stuff to flesh her out that way. It’s both a blessing and a curse to play someone who’s so well-documented.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the character you’re playing?

KAYE: I think the biggest misconception about Queen Elizabeth is maybe that she has no fun and is so strict. But she has a great sense of humor! I’ve seen so much of her smiling, with her head thrown back in laughter. I think she’s probably a very warm person who by now is even warmer because she has nothing left to lose – except there are always these surprises that her family keeps throwing at her. But that’s how it is with all families. That family is like every other family, except very much heightened and the stakes maybe are higher.

DE WAAL: I’d say maybe the biggest misconception about Diana, especially in America, was that she was always this icon who was always amazing and doing all this charity work. But she was 19 when she got married. She was extremely shy. She had a lot of darkness and there was a lot of hardship she had to overcome to eventually find her legacy. She had to find her own path because there was no one helping her.

HARTRAMPF: All of us in the cast and the creative team have tried to approach this story that everyone thinks they know backwards and forwards from the most human and empathetic angles. I’m trying to approach Prince Charles as not just the man who we know lives in a palace and has influence and wealth and a team of servants around him, but also as a person who has desires, who wants to be loved, who wants to love very deeply, and wants to be good at his job. That’s something that we can all relate to. I hope that people will find each of these characters in the show much more relatable than they thought coming in.

I also hope that audiences understand that this is a celebration of Diana’s life. It is a very serious story and we don’t take this lightly, but there are moments of cheekiness and some really beautiful funny moments—specifically that Judy Kaye brings—that I’m excited for audiences to see.

Why do you think there’s such a global fascination with the Royal Family that gets passed on from generation to generation? 

HARTRAMPF: It’s aspirational! I think that everyone is interested in imagining a life that’s different from their own. To have a family that can trace their legacy back to the sword-and-crown stories that we all know is such a throwback, and people remain fascinated. We really can’t get enough! It’s pretty wild. I think it’s more about aspirations and people being able to get outside of their daily lives and look at a group of people who live in a different way.

DE WAAL: The British royal family have been around since I think the Vikings or whatever. Wars have happened and families have changed but they’ve always had a presence, which is an amazing thing in humanity, whatever their role may be now. How they’ve shaped that role and the good they do and how they’re independently wealthy and all these things is all so interesting.

One thing Diana was incredibly famous for was her fashion. William, how did you reinterpret and integrate Diana’s iconic outfits into the show’s costumes? 

LONG: I do a visual time warp twist because many of her clothes were very representative of the 1980s, which is to say they were a bit out there. My job as the costume designer is to take the imagery that the playwright and director have chosen from her life. Sometimes those are moments that happen behind the scenes, so I was able to imagine what she was wearing. But when she’s wearing these iconic looks, I put them through a sort of beauty tunnel for today’s eyes. I soften some of the 80s of it all, like the shoulder pads. I soften some of the colors and patterns. Mainly, I’ve put everything through a filter of today’s sense of taste. Today, things fit more tightly and there’s more body consciousness. These outfits aren’t blousey and voluminous. I’ve fit more things to our Princess Diana and to Prince Charles. The idea is to help the audience have the same reaction to a look that we had when we saw it in 1980s. So I’ve not redesigned them, I’ve just shapeshifted them.

In what ways do the music and lyrics elevate this story? 

HARTRAMPF: The form of musical theater is that when a character feels so deeply that they can no longer speak, they start to sing, right? That’s what we’re taught in theater school, at least. There is no higher stakes story than a relationship at the center of the most powerful family on earth hitting a rocky period and then coming apart at the seams. To have these characters burst into song to try and truly express the depth of emotions that is brought into this situation is the perfect format to tell the story.

DE WAAL: There are huge heightened emotions in the story and the music and choreography help transcend that. It really helps us get past the facts of it and live in the emotions and allow those emotions to move forward. It’s very uniting when you manage to bring the audience into the same place and then move into song and move into dance. That really reflects that. So it’s going to be a very moving piece of theater, we hope.

HARTRAMPF: Diana is a story that you think you know, but that you’re going to be surprised by. You’re going to be surprised by the dance numbers. You’re going to be surprised by the laughs that you find. You’ll be surprised by the places where you cry and the people that you empathize with that you didn’t think you were going to empathize with. I think if you want to go to a night of theater with high highs and low lows and a shockingly surprise-filled evening, where you think you know how it’s going to end, come and see Diana.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Diana on Broadway. Performances begin on March 2 at the Longacre Theatre (220 W. 48th Street, New York, NY). #TheDianaMusical


Diana

About ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI 171 Articles
Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.