Netflix's 'Diana: The Musical'

Should “Diana” succeed, and that's certainly not guaranteed, it may pioneer a new model for major live theater shows. 

By Ani Bundel, cultural critic

Since the original Broadway musical “Showboat” opened almost 100 years ago, the genre has always thrived on love stories. Given this well-documented history, “Diana: The Musical” seems almost a perversion of the archetype — an anti-love story starring a girl who wanted to believe in the fairy tale only to discover it fleeting. As a streaming special, “Diana: The Musical” almost works. As a Broadway offering, it’s a solid C, too schlocky to hit the emotional highs, and in desperate need of a better ending.

Even so, Netflix’s newest experiment could be Broadway’s ticket to a comeback.

Given this well-documented history, “Diana: The Musical” seems almost a perversion of the archetype.

When the world shut down in mid-March of 2020, the biggest musicals were getting ready to officially open just in time to make the April eligibility date for the 2020 Tony Awards. That included “Diana,” scheduled to open March 31. The Great White Way only just reopened in September 2021, but while theater doors were firmly shut, Disney’s recorded performance of “Hamilton” became Disney+’s first massive hit that wasn’t tied to an already established franchise. And it uncovered an untapped market begging to be catered to: theater nerds.

Apple TV+ followed the new model of streaming staged performances with established Broadway darling “Come From Away,” which arrived in mid-September. But Netflix’s choice, “Diana,” takes the entire premise a step further. Both “Hamilton” and “Come From Away” are several years old and established hits. “Diana,” on the other hand, is still awaiting its opening night. Live previews for the show don’t resume until November, giving the show a full month of exclusivity on Netflix.

“Diana” (or “Diana: The Musical” as Netflix titles it) is therefore not just a filmed live show for the theater nerd to enjoy at home, it’s a very fancy promo for the upcoming Broadway run. The producer of “Diana” hope letting theater fans watch at home first will get them excited and willing to come to New York to see the show live.

And lord knows this show needs all the help it can get. In a world of “Hadestown,” this is, at best, an unimaginative middle-of-the-road attempt at turning Diana’s life into staged drama. Jeanna de Waal, clad in 80s fashion and fluffy wigs, does her best. But the titular Diana is hobbled by anodyne music, and cringeworthy lyrics. How can she hold a candle (in the wind) to Emma Corrin’s take from “The Crown” season four or even Kristen Stewart’s upcoming “Spencer” portrayal? Frankly, the musical would have been better off using Elton John’s famous number than some of the original songs here. (David Bryan, one of the nonfamous members of Bon Jovi, is responsible for the music.) There are a few genuine showstoppers — Judy Kaye, who plays Queen Elizabeth II, has a humanizing number toward the end of the second half in “An Officer’s Wife” — but in those cases it’s the actress overcoming the material, and not the other way round. The show may call Charles a “third-rate Henry VIII,” but with “Six” playing down the street, that lyric might become the show’s epitaph.

If a midgrade musical can ride a streaming wave to a hit, every musical in town will be looking for its Netflix bump next year.

Except, of course, “Six” isn’t easily accessible to millions around the world. And unlike blockbusters, no one can argue that watching a staged musical at home is the same experience as seeing it in a theater – new fans will have to also come see it live if they want the full experience.

Disney has made mountains of money turning its animated musicals into long-running stage productions. Jukebox musicals that feature well-known tunes are moneymakers, from 1978’s “Ain't Misbehavin’” (which took home a Tony) to the upcoming Britney Spears-scored “Once Upon a One More Time.” Tourist families from out of town, who make up the bulk of Broadway’s ticket sales, are far more willing to pay the exorbitant prices of seats for a live show if they know they are guaranteed to like what they hear. And now every single one of them who has a Netflix subscription is going to know “Diana,” though not spectacular, is at least a safe bet.

Moving Broadway shows to streaming isn’t going to be easy. The entire industry has been built on the concept of live productions, and the multiple unions (and contracts) involved in many cases expressly forbid the recording of their work. (As audiences are reminded at the top of every live performance they attend.) But should “Diana” succeed, it may pioneer a new model for major Broadway shows. If a midgrade musical can ride a streaming wave to a hit, every musical in town will be looking for its Netflix bump next year.