Sunday, October 10, 2021

Greetings from Netflix

Saturday was Pokemon Community Day for October, so I spent a bunch of time catching Duskulls and evolving them. While doing that, we took a walk in Cabin John Park, went to MicroCenter, Trader Joe's and World Market, stopped at a vegetable cart, sorted records down the basement, and tried to keep the cats fed. We had Swedish (fake) chicken with quinoa for dinner. And then we watched Diana: The Musical, which I wound up discussing with four people simultaneously, including someone I know who worked on the show in previews before the pandemic, my good friend in London, my biggest musical theater fan friend, and a friend who hates both musicals and royals so is perversely a fan of the musical. ScreenCrush says, "‘Diana: The Musical’ Is So Bad It Makes ‘Cats’ Look Good"! Spoilers mostly if you don't know Diana's life story:

Having finished the show...I think ScreenCrush may have been too kind. The lyrics, to put it kindly, are AWFUL -- so many of the rhymes land with a clunk and vastly oversimplify what they're trying to convey, whether it's Charles's pleasure at becoming a father or the seriousness of Diana's bulimia. The show plays into the hands of her biggest critics by following the line that she only got involved in charity work/AIDS awareness as a distraction from her terrible marriage/to get attention in her own right, and her big adversaries are Camilla and the Queen; I appreciate that Charles was never the equal of any of those women, but I really dislike the way Camilla is placed as the masterminding villain rather than a woman who, like Diana herself, was constrained by aristocratic expectation.

This show can't decide whether it wants to be Evita or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so tonally it is wildly inconsistent -- it reminds me of everything that's wrong with the fictional Marilyn musical biography from Smash. (The comparisons to Springtime For Hitler aren't wrong.) The performances for the most part are good, Jeanna de Waal in particular; she's trying so hard, and she can act, sing, and dance, but no one is a good enough actress to pull off the lines she's expected to sing. Judy Kaye is so good as Barbara Cartland and so awful as the Queen that I feel that the Queen would be justified in suing for defamation; a lot of that is how awful her lines are, but she's dressed as dumpily as possible and clomps around the stage. Prince Philip is absent, which is a huge loss, both because (as The Crown and The Queen both proved) things he actually said are a gold mine for comedians and because in his absence, the Queen says all the terribly judgemental things usually attributed to Philip.

Despite the terrible song "The Words Came Pouring Out" and the lines about how chasing Diana is better than wanking, the paparazzi are really not villains here. It keeps coming back to Camilla, who's the mastermind behind Charles marrying what she thinks is a meek, malleable virgin and whose own failing marriage send her chasing repeatedly after Charles when he's trying to make a go of things with Diana. When Diana and Camilla face off in a second act number called "The Main Event" and staged in a glam boxing ring, it's so over the top that only being played for laughs could save it (the lyrics rhyme Diana and Camilla with Thrilla in Manila ffs). Camilla is the single biggest influence on Diana's life, more than her own parents' divorce, more than her brother who never appears, more than her sister who we keep getting reminded slept with Charles before she did. The only way this would really work is if Michael Palin were playing Diana and John Cleese were playing Camilla.

I know the internet has beaten me to citing how bad the lyrics are, but, I mean, THEY ARE TERRIBLE. AIDS patient: "I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell." Diana: "Harry, my ginger-haired son/You'll always be second to none." Charles: "There are centuries and centuries of protocol/Think of the damage you've done by ignoring it all." Diana: "If Charles steps aside and lets my William reign/Then all this suffering will not have been in vain." They keep calling Diana a tart, rhyming it with smart and heart. In addition to Manila, they rhyme Camilla with Godzilla (Diana's POV, of course, to the press). The number the internet is really ragging on is "This Is How Your People Dance" in which Diana gets dragged on a date to a classical concert by Charles, and fantasizes the chamber performance turning into a rock concert in which she performs. It should be played for over-the-top campy fun instead of trying to be serious about Their Different Perspectives On Music And Life, but at least the lyrics are fun ("The Russian plays on and on/How I wish that he were Elton John").

Back in my theater camp days, I remember being told that The Baker's Wife (in which a French baker marries a pretty young woman who leaves him for a playboy, and he bakes to win her back) was the worst musical ever, but The Baker's Wife has "Meadowlark" and was sung by Patti LuPone. The most musically enjoyable song in Diana is swiped almost completely from "I'll Be There" -- others remind me of Chicago and Starship. Again, the musical would have worked if they'd gone all out and played up the obvious musical references -- Elton John and Diana were actually friends, they could have done parodies of his songs and it would have been fine and the AIDS charity work would have felt more resonant -- but they're too busy having the Queen finally agreeing to meet Camilla, and complimenting her patience, which undercuts the Queen's song about being an officer's wife, which tries to be touching but it's way too late in the show and doesn't ever connect to how she feels about Diana and/or Camilla. It would have been so much better if Queen sang about marriage while Charles' marriage is still salvageable, or if Camilla wasn't being made such a villain that the Queen couldn't try to understand what Charles might want to share with her.

The ending is actually a little bit moving though it feels rushed -- no Dodi? Life after Charles summed up in a few sentences instead of bringing back the AIDS patients? -- but the suddenness of her death...I remember sitting on the same couch I'm sitting on now when the news first broke about the car crash, and even as someone not emotionally invested in her, it was so shocking and upsetting. There should have been more than a few lines about what she did after the divorce, there should have been more talk at the end about how the press tried to use her, but I doubt anyone is taking any of it seriously enough at the end for it to matter!

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