91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Diana, The Musical' mixes camp with sincerity. Here's where every song ranks

Jeanna de Waal plays Diana, the princess, in <em>Diana, The Musical</em>.
Jeanna de Waal plays Diana, the princess, in Diana, The Musical.

Diana, The Musical, which tells the story of Princess Diana from the time she began her courtship with Charles when she was 19 all the way until her death at 36, is scheduled to begin performances on Broadway later this year after a long COVID delay. Meanwhile, Netflix has premiered a version of the staged show filmed without an audience, which is allowing a much bigger audience to know what it would look like if, say, School Of Rock were about Chernobyl.

It's part camp, part sincerity, part morality tale, part Wikipedia entry, and part Waiting For Guffman. Or, I should say, part Red, White, and Blaine, the show they're putting on in Waiting For Guffman. But it does come with a whole bunch of weird songs, written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, and what do we do with weird things? We rank them. (We also note where they fall in the story, for reference.) In this case, they are going from most regrettable to least regrettable, so they improve as you read!

1. "Happiness/Simply Breathe" (a stretch of the marriage including the births of the boys)

Oh brother. Congratulations on fitting the births of two boys and a series of mental health challenges into a single musical interlude, but if you're going to persuade people that this is an epic tale, you have to come up with something for a horny prince to tell his girlfriend on the phone besides "You still haunt my dreams."

2. "Snap Click" (Diana's relationship with the paparazzi when she first began dating Charles)

One of the first things you'll notice about the music in Diana, The Musical is that it's almost entirely written in a series of couplets with very simple rhymes ending in single-syllable words. Allow me to catalog the entire list of rhymes in this song, so you can see what I mean: smile/while; Di/eye; peek/week; blast/last; thrill/kill; wank/bank; bright/right; rich/bitch; go/so; real/deal; pay/say; lead/need; day/away. I feel like this the kind of song that's always being performed in an ad that plays in the back of a New York City cab, right before you turn the sound off.

3. "This Is How Your People Dance" (Diana wishes Charles were cool and modern and liked Elton John)

If this song, which is so square that you could use it to frame a house, were really what rock music sounded like, I think Prince Charles and the entire royal family would have been fine with it all along. More fun with rhymes: "Like to sock her" is the wedged-in rhyme of "rocker." I would have guessed it was going to rhyme with "shocker," but sure.

4. "An Officer's Wife" (Charles' mother — the Queen — signs off on their divorce while reflecting on her marriage)

There's nothing more disappointing than a curiously tuneless ballad. (You have to respect the pure madness of the chorus members breathlessly adding "But then the king died!" as if it's very, very exciting, in case you lost track of the exposition.) I have to say, I don't think the show really justifies this song's pivotal placement over the divorce. Obviously, there's a desire to draw parallels between Diana and Elizabeth, but they're not really getting there. In other words: This song is not the beeeeest that I have ever seeeeeeen, it seems it's just a messy way to humanize the queeeeeeeen.

5. "Pretty, Pretty Girl" (Diana decides to use fame to her advantage)

They really like that "press/dress" rhyme, eh? You have to admire the way "The stories girls are taught to believe/are not the stories that a girl should believe" is just kind of thrown in there like it's under a Snapple cap.

6. "The Worst Job In England" (the wheels begin to spin to make Diana a princess)

Look, let's not be boring about it: It's certainly possible to build a song around an unwieldy, not particularly musical phrase that doesn't rhyme with anything. But the rest of this lyric is one of the most glaring examples of the moon/June, heart/apart rhyming that plagues the entire show, and this titular phrase just keeps getting plopped on top of all of it like Cool Whip at the end of a TikTok salad recipe: There's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything.

Diana shows off her daring dress.
/ Netflix
Diana shows off her daring dress.

7. "The Dress" (Diana goes out in a daring black dress at the height of the press attention around her)

It's true that Diana's fashion choices were a big part of her story, as was this particular dress. But this show is positively consumed by what she's wearing, and this is the second song in the show that leans this heavily on the word "dress." Furthermore, I understand it's fun to write profanity, but here, the barrage of f-bombs feels pandering, like the part of a concert where the singer says, "We're so delighted to be back here in ... CINCINNATI!"

8. "The World Fell In Love" (Diana charms the people of Wales)

This is as good a time as any to mention that the lyrics sit very inelegantly on the melodies in this show. "BUT I'm truly/NO ONE special/ in FACT I'm less than/WHAT I seem" is an example of how the sequence of words technically fits the structure, but you would never speak these words like this when it comes to either emphasis or phrasing. Compare that to this long, winding Cole Porter line with the emphasis like this: "I get no KICK from cham-PAGNE; mere alco-HOL doesn't THRILL me at ALL, so TELL me why SHOULD it be TRUE; that I get a KICK out of YOU?" Those are all the same words you would stress in speaking, really. And if you want one that's simpler and not by Cole Porter, you can even compare it to "OOOOOOklahoma, where the WIND comes SWEEPing down the PLAIN!"

9. "Whatever Love Means Anyway" (Charles and Diana begin their loveless marriage)

This song keeps feeling like it's supposed to build to a soaring chorus, but it doesn't actually have one. I don't mean technically; I think it does technically have a chorus. But if someone named this song and said, "How does that song go?", I'd be hard-pressed to tell them, even right after I've heard it. That tends to mean you forgot to write a soaring chorus.

10. "The Words Came Pouring Out" (Diana spills her guts to biographer Andrew Morton)

Again, they keep repeating the title to construct a chorus, but are there any words here anyone would remember? Is there a melody you would be able to replicate even five minutes after you first heard this song? I'm also not sure that out of all the things you could burn a number on, the best possible thing is having Diana reiterate everything we've already heard her say about her marriage.

11. "Diana (The Rage)" (Charles is angry at Diana after she dances in public)

It feels inevitable that this show would involve a song in which someone says "Diana" over and over again, kind of the way they keep saying "Monorail!" in that episode of The Simpsons. This song is as good as any, and it makes sense that it's an angry song, since "Maria" kind of used up the idea that if you say it soft, it's almost like praying.

Diana really does pose in the middle of the stage a lot in this show.
/ Netflix
Diana really does pose in the middle of the stage a lot in this show.

12. "I Will" (Diana endures her actual wedding)

This isn't bad. At times, it sounds like a song! Sure, that song is "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Starship, formerly known as Jefferson Starship, formerly known as Jefferson Airplane. But still, I could hum this one. I won't, but I could. I think it helps that a lot of the lyric is "I will, I will" over and over again. After all, every word rhymes gracefully with itself!

13. "Him And Her (And Him And Her) / Just Dance" (Charles and Diana both navigate affairs, with help from the imaginary Barbara Cartland who keeps popping up)

Of all the generic half-formed ballads in this show, this is probably the most generic. And while that might sound entirely bad, it's a relief to hear something that seems like a lot of other songs thrown in a blender, and I think they took some pressure off the lyrics by repeating "him and her" so many times. Also, this features Diana's former lover James Hewitt, my personal MVP of the show. By the way, "Just Dance" does not refer to the video game, and more's the pity.

14. "I Miss You Most On Sundays" (Charles and Camilla are very sad)

This is the title that most seems like it could come from a more traditional musical, but imagining Camilla Parker Bowles asking Charles for "a cuddle while we watch the setting sun" makes me giggle.

15. "As I Love You" (Diana wishes she could fix her bad marriage)

I really don't know who decided this show needed a song that had a little Spanish and French in it, but "serves me right for marrying a Scorpio" is probably the wittiest line in any song on this list.

16. "She Moves In The Most Modern Ways" (Everyone marvels at Diana's popularity and comfort in settings where royals typically look ridiculous)

This is fine. It has a melody! It even has a dance break!

17. "Underestimated" (The opening song, which finds Diana describing herself)

We have now moved into the portion of the list where I can honestly say: This song is not that bad! It sounds like the song a character would write and then play at the end of a Hallmark movie about a music teacher.

18. "The Main Event" (Diana and Camilla get in a fight at a party)

You can tell this entire song happened when someone noticed that "Camilla" rhymes with "Thrilla in Manila." At least it sounds like it was fun to write.

19. "If (Light The World)" (Diana strikes out on her own and then dies)

This is the moment at which Diana, The Musical briefly imagines what Evita would be like if Evita were nice. On the one hand, the lyrics continue to be dreadful (hat-tip for rhyming "in charge" with "ambassador at large"), but — plot twist! — on the other hand, the emotion of the moment is hard to entirely resist. The death of Diana is still an awful, awful story, and Jeanna de Waal gives it her belting all as Diana walks offstage, finally pursued to her death. This show is genuinely very bad, and yet I got goosebumps. Not from the song, though.

20. "Secrets And Lies" (Diana visits AIDS patients)

This is a song about one of the most genuinely moving stories in Diana's real life, when she was visiting AIDS patients, and the music is reasonably well-suited to it. It's kind of that same soaring ballad that appears everywhere else, but it's hard not to be moved by the scene, even though it's as unrelentingly corny as everything else.

21. "Here Comes James Hewitt" (Diana meets Hewitt, with whom she will have a serious affair)

If Diana, The Musical had embraced its silliness, its campiness, and its absurdity, it would have been much more successful. There's a "Rocky Horror"/"Little Shop Of Horrors" dark weirdness that's sometimes easy to spot around the edges, but which the earnestness of the rest of all this unfortunately chokes. You can tell what I mean from "Here Comes James Hewitt," which is as preposterous and sweaty as the whole thing should have been. If you haven't seen the staging, where he comes up out of the floor shirtless on a horse, you can't fully appreciate its greatness, but the voices in the background saying "you go girl" while Diana trades single-entendre horse come-ons with Hewitt are the direction I wish this had gone. I don't think it's possible to be ambivalent about this song: You either think this is the best song in the show, or you think it's the worst. I'm going with the best — or at least the least worst.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.