Finding ‘Diana’ in La Jolla Playhouse’s much-anticipated new musical about a late, beloved princess
It can be hard now to separate memories of Princess Diana’s life from the sad story of her passing, at age 36 in a 1997 Paris car accident.
Even the song most associated with the late Princess of Wales is one that was famously played at her funeral: “Candle in the Wind,” which Diana’s friend Elton John originally wrote for Marilyn Monroe — another cultural icon who died tragically and too young.
But this week, when La Jolla Playhouse unveils a whole new set of songs about Diana, it will be in service of a world-premiere musical that revisits her days as a dynamic and sometimes divisive figure on the world stage, rather than focusing on that final chapter.
At the center of the show, created by the same key artists who took the musical “Memphis” from the Playhouse to Broadway, is Diana’s 1981 wedding to Prince Charles.
That globally televised event commenced what seemed a fairy-tale union. And yet the marriage eventually would devolve into the stuff of tabloid gossip, as the pair became estranged and Charles’ longtime relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles was exposed.
Those soap-opera aspects of the real-life story aside, director and Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley says “Diana” ultimately stands as a tribute to the late princess.
“Everyone involved in this show is interested in celebrating her,” says Ashley, who teamed with writer-lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan (the longtime keyboardist for the band Bon Jovi) to create the musical. And “everybody working on this show has a real fascination with her.”
So how do you step into Diana’s shoes — not to mention the splashy fashions that the princess became known for in those sartorially flamboyant days of the 1980s?
That’s what the Broadway-seasoned Jeanna de Waal has been working hard to figure out in the nearly two years since she was tapped to play the title role in “Diana” — a show that seems an obvious candidate for Broadway, depending on how things go in La Jolla.
Although de Waal spent the first seven years of her life in Germany, her mom is British, and the family had moved to England not long before Diana’s death — an event that left a lasting impression.
“I very vividly remember the day she died, because our mum got us out of bed, actually, to watch (the news),” says de Waal, chatting at the Playhouse before a recent rehearsal.
“I remember it being on the TV all day. And my mum and my grandma in particular being very upset. But it really wasn’t until I started researching for this role that I deep-dived into the facts of Diana’s story, and also the more subtle parts of her motivations.”
What de Waal came away with was a conviction that Diana, who was barely 20 when she and Charles married, “was a wonderfully sensitive young human being,” and that “the ways that pressure and isolation and loneliness can affect a person — and then to see them overcome those challenges and do something extraordinary with their life — is a brilliant and amazing story.”
“It’s a pleasure to dive into and really explore those parts of your own emotions, and see how you can tap into those and connect.”
For director Ashley, a big part of the motivation for creating “Diana” has been that “I think she was an extraordinarily transformational, inspirational woman.”
Through her work to raise awareness of such issues as the AIDS crisis and the perils of abandoned land mines, says Ashley, Diana “really used the white-hot spotlight that was on her in such productive ways to call attention to charities that really needed help.”
And “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.”
The many dimensions of Diana
On the face of it there seems a surprising contrast between that serious-minded Diana and the one whose favorite quote (according to her son, Harry) was: “You can be as naughty as you want — just don’t get caught.”
But to de Waal, those are really two sides of the same coin.
“I think there are contrasts, but I think they’re also linked,” says de Waal, whose Broadway credits include “Kinky Boots” and “American Idiot.”
“When she was doing her work with (causes), it was all about connection. And playfulness IS connection, right? There is an element of fun or silliness to it.
“And I think that even though she brought a great sense of gravitas to the work she did by shining a light on it, she wasn’t lecturing people. She was making them laugh and making them smile. She discovered how to use her natural skill, that playfulness, for a greater cause.”
De Waal adds that Diana “was put into a circumstance where she had a clearly defined set of rules, and was very willing and enthusiastic to please the people around her. And she had to find that balance of serving her own voice rather than always serving the voices of others.
“I think the positive of living like that is the empathy and the kindness and the love you can make people around you feel. And I think that’s something in her personality I’ve tried to emulate and take on, and really be aware of how much value there is in listening to the nuances and the subtleties of day-to-day interactions.”
De Waal — whose “Diana” cast mates include two-time Tony Award winner Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth, Roe Hartrampf as Charles and Erin Davie as Camilla — says the team has “been very clear that we’re not making a documentary. We’re making a musical.”
But, she adds, “the one part that maybe comes closest to being a documentary are the costumes,” designed by the Broadway veteran William Ivey Long.
“His attention to detail is extraordinary,” de Waal says. “I mean, we analyzed closeups of pictures to see where the buttons lay.
“You’ll recognize every costume I wear, truly — although there was the challenge of, she was much taller than I am. (So) you put 20 ruffles on her and she still looks good. You put four ruffles on me and I look like a Christmas tree!”
Small sacrifice, in her eyes, for getting a chance to play such a celebrated and complex figure — and to be part of a new creative work from the very start of its life.
“This is my absolute favorite part of being an actor,” says de Waal. “It’s all-consuming, and it’s stimulating every day. And really exciting. It feels lovely to be part of something as you’re going up the roller coaster.”
When: In previews. Opens March 3. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 7.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: About $91-$136 (limited availability)
Phone: (858) 550-1010
The music of ‘Diana’
With “Memphis” — the musical about rock’s early days that launched at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 and went on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run — composer David Bryan and writer-lyricist Joe DiPietro drew on blues and R&B.
Now, the pair have taken musical cues from ‘80s pop for “Diana,” their latest world-premiere work with director and Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley.
The show “definitely has a pop-rock feel,” says Jeanna de Waal, who plays Princess Diana in the production.
And Ashley says: “It’s very much inspired by the ‘80s. Diana was a huge fan of Duran Duran and Culture Club and also Bon Jovi,” for which Bryan serves as longtime keyboardist. “So her music (in the show) is very much inspired by ‘80s pop.”
But “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.”
‘Diana’ star means business
While the title role in “Diana” is the biggest one she’s ever taken on, Jeanna de Waal has been a rising star (on Broadway and beyond) for a while now; her credits include the world premiere of “Waitress” as well as such shows as “Kinky Boots,” “Wicked” and “American Idiot” — not to mention “The Rocky Horror Show” at San Diego’s Old Globe.
But in her other life, de Waal is the mastermind behind Broadway Weekends, a business venture that essentially offers musical-theater fantasy camp for grown-ups.
The sessions are taught and led by working Broadway artists, and give all participants (no matter their ability levels) the opportunity to perform.
The idea has proved popular enough since its launch in 2017 that Broadway Weekends now includes regional “pop-up” camps in other cities. In January, a pop-up took place in Los Angeles, led by cast members of the touring “Come From Away” — the hit musical that premiered in La Jolla four years ago under the direction of Playhouse artistic chief and “Diana” director “Christopher Ashley.
And when it was mentioned to de Waal in a recent Playhouse interview that it sounded as if she were getting the equivalent of an MBA by launching the project, she replied: “Actually, I just found out this morning that I have an interview with Wharton for the MBA program” — referring to what might be the nation’s pre-eminent business school.
De Waal adds that she would have to defer attendance if she and “Diana” wound up transferring to Broadway, and “I’m not sure I’d even do it” in any case, given all she’s already learning about the business world. “But I have applied.”
Even if we set aside all of Shakespeare’s stories of kings and queens, there still have been a whole lot of plays about the British royal family. (And those don’t include the 1928 Broadway play “The Royal Family,” which was actually a parody of the Barrymore acting dynasty.) Five recent examples:
“The Audience,” 2013: Peter Morgan’s 2013 play draws on the traditional weekly “audiences” (or meetings) Queen Elizabeth II has held over the decades with Britain’s prime ministers. Helen Mirren played the queen in both the London and Broadway productions.
“King Charles III,” 2014: The 2014 “future history play” by Mike Bartlett imagines a time a few years hence when Prince Charles ascends to the throne, but is beset by nasty politics and scandal; Princess Diana actually appears as a ghost in the piece. Coronado Playhouse staged the play’s local premiere last year. (Read the review.)
“The Madness of King George III,” 1991: Alan Bennett’s fact-based but deeply satirical work explores the odd story of the 18th-century British king who lost the American colonies and, for mysterious reasons, his mind. It was last produced here at the Old Globe in 2010. (Read the review.)
“Handbagged,” 2013: Moira Buffini, whose play “Gabriel” has its West Coast premiere at North Coast Rep this week, wrote this comic 2013 piece, which parallels “The Audience” a bit in its focus on the pas de deux between Elizabeth II and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“Princess Diana, the Musical,” 1998: And yes, there is at least one other Diana musical. This one, by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis, was staged in 2017 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido.
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