Christopher Ashley on La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Diana’: it’s ‘a story of a woman who finds her voice and finds her power’


As the much-anticipated musical “Diana” nears its world premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, director Christopher Ashley has had a chance to contemplate what things might be like for Diana, Princess of Wales — the show’s late namesake — if she had lived to witness our own era.

“I think Diana probably would’ve been the best tweeter in the world,” says Ashley with an affectionate laugh. “She was inhabiting a different media moment, but she was really a master.”

Diana’s tempestuous relationship with the media will be one focus of the show, which begins performances at the Playhouse on Feb. 19 and is scheduled to run through April 7, having already been extended once.

As previously announced, Ashley — the theater’s artistic chief — has cast the British actress Jeanna de Waal in the title role. Two-time Tony Award-winner Judy Kaye is taking on the role of Queen Elizabeth, and the Broadway-seasoned Erin Davie will play Camilla Parker Bowles, the mistress (and eventual wife) of Diana’s husband, Prince Charles.

“Diana” is being staged by the same core team that created “Memphis,” the musical whose hit Broadway production launched at the Playhouse in 2008. Besides Ashley, that includes writer-lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan, the longtime keyboardist for the band Bon Jovi. Ashley’s frequent collaborator Kelly Devine is the choreographer.

Partly because the Playhouse has such a strong reputation for sending shows to Broadway, and partly because of the widespread and still-thriving adoration for Diana (who died in 1997), the musical has been in the national spotlight of late.

We’ll have a full preview story on the show closer to its opening, but for now here are some excerpts from a recent chat with Ashley about “Diana” — and Diana:

Q: There’s been plenty of attention focused nationally on this musical, and it feels as though people have a lot of questions and maybe expectations about what the show will be. Are the cast and creative team able to stay kind of insulated from those outside pressures?

A: I think so. The Playhouse is really good at being, as it says in our mission statement, a safe harbor. So if it’s possible to feel unpressured in making a new musical about Diana, this is its best shot! (The theater) does function as a kind of greenhouse or sanctuary for creating something new.

Q: How would you describe the focus of the show, and what time span does it cover?

A: It really focuses on Diana, Charles and Camilla. It’s very much about the marriage, and the relationships between those three individuals at the center. The center of the musical is from the time Charles and Diana met until the time they separated and divorced.

We really do not try to dramatize the end of her life. (And while) the childhood that forms the psychology of the adult woman is absolutely in there, it’s not the focus.

Q: That 1981 wedding of Diana and Charles was such a massive media event — what memories do you have of that?

A: I was in high school, and it was like everyone was completely riveted to it. It was sort of the first media wedding in the royal family. (Earlier coronations and weddings) were huge events in person. But actually having it broadcast, (amid) Diana’s wild roller-coaster of a relationship with the media — it was in everyone’s living room, and millions of people watched it.

Q: Since the show unfolds mostly during the ‘80s, does the music draw from that era?

A: It’s very much inspired by the ‘80s. Diana was a huge fan of Duran Duran and Culture Club and also Bon Jovi. So her music (in the show) is very much inspired by ‘80s pop.

The music of the royal family, of the Windsors, is much more derived from contemporary classical. So the score has kind of a collision between those two styles.

And everything has a kind of contemporary lens as well. So while the story is very much set in the ‘80s, I think the audience does think about what’s happening in the royal family now, and what has happened in the media since then.

Q: What do you feel makes the story of Diana one that needs to be told?

A: Part of why I want to tell this story is I think she is an extraordinarily transformational, inspirational woman. If you think about what she did philanthropically — she was in AIDS wards when that was still considered so dangerous. Her work with land mines — that video of her kind of walking across the mine fields — she really used the white-hot spotlight that was on her in such productive ways to call attention to charities that really needed help.

It’s also a great time to tell a story of a woman who finds her voice and finds her power the way Diana did.

Twitter: @jimhebert