ShentonSTAGE Daily for Thurs Nov 18

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As if the late Diana, Princess of Wales, didn’t suffer enough in her short life and sudden, violent death, here she is as the title character and subject of a new Broadway musical, being exploited all over again, in a show that is (literally) a car crash of a musical.

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If that analogy seems tasteless, it’s nothing on the degrees of bad taste on display here — though the paparazzi photographers singing ““Better than a Guinness, better than a wank/Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank” has been cut, other, no less awful moments remain, like the repeated refrain to Diana’s choice of evening wear: ” So how about this fuck you dress / this fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity fuck you dress.”

This fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity fuck you to Broadway itself mines new lows amongst the already commercial fuck you genre of bio-musicals that trade on their title recognition for the person being celebrated, whether living — like such recent entries as Cher the Musical or the current Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations — or dead (the upcoming MJ the Musical, on the life and music of Michael Jackson).

At least those shows can draw on the beloved back musical catalogues of the artists concerned; the creators of Diana can only reheat — or re-imagine — the big events of her life (and death), like meeting Prince Charles for the first time, dancing with Wayne Sleep at the Royal Opera House (no, he’s not even named but he makes an appropriately diminutive appearance), visiting an AIDS ward (and like Lazarus, her presence gets them not to exactly rise again, but to abandon the fear of being photographed and therefore publicly recognised as suffering from the disease; one gets to sing, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell”), the births of her sons William and Harry; meeting James Hewitt (her military paramour who is ridiculously presented here as a topless muscled red-headed stud, pictured below, whose first appearance sees him bucking on the back of a horse); her battles with her husband’s lover Camilla Parker-Bowles for his affections (“It’s the thrilla in Manila but with Diana and Camilla!”) and so on (and endlessly on).

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The show is frequently breathtaking — but no, that quote isn’t written to be put on the posters, as I don’t mean it in a good way. What’s surprising is the involvement of genuine theatrical pro’s. The cast includes actors like double Tony winner Judy Kaye (won for playing the original Carlotta in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera in 1988, and her role in Nice Work if You Can Get It in 2012, here doing double duty as the Queen and the queen of romance novels Barbara Cartland, who became Diana’s step grandmother, after her father married Cartland’s daughter after divorcing his estranged wife) and Erin Davie (as Camilla).

Then there’s the creative team, led by director Christopher Ashley (also currently represented on Broadway and in the West End by the utterly marvellous Come from Away, for which he won the 2017 Best Director of a Musical Tony), and writers David Bryan (music) and Joe DiPietro (book), with both sharing credit for the lyrics, whose previous, far better work included the 2010 Tony winning Best Musical Memphis and the cult Off-Broadway show The Toxic Avenger.

The lighting designer Natasha Katz and costume designer William Ivey Long have six Tonys apiece, while British sound designer Gareth Owen has three Oliviers to his name. So the show has not been done on the fly-by-night cheap and at least looks great.

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But surely someone — anyone? — should have cried STOP at some point. Perhaps after it opened at La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego in 2019 (where Ashley is artistic director); or after its original 2020 Broadway run was interrupted during previews and a filmed version was made during the Broadway shutdown by Netflix, where it was first broadcast last month. That should have been confirmation enough to abort the live edition. But no, its producers insisted on fulfilling their death wish.

On the basis of the reviews it received today (for a full round-up, see here), it’s a show that should close this weekend, if not before (shows have in the past closed immediately after their first nights). But that no longer happens on Broadway; the producers will try to save face by at least running through the Thanksgiving and then Christmas holidays, but I doubt it will survive the January blues.

Theatre photograph of the day: tech rehearsals for ENO’s new production of THE VALYRIE opening tomorrow (November 19) at the London Coliseum, taken by David Levene in today’s Guardian.

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