Asked if she thought the late Princess of Wales would enjoy a musical made for her life – specifically Diana: The musical, a rock diamond that sees the royal between the ages of 19 and 36 – actress Jeanne de Waal does not hesitate: “Yes, definitely!” In fact, she is so confident that she hopes for Diana’s sons, the princes William and Harry, watch the show, either now or when the show opens on Broadway on November 17th.
De Baal may be right. The princess loved both music and theater, especially Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. Cats and The phantom of the opera. But Diana: The musical remarkably different from Weber’s masterpieces; he is somehow trying to unite the camp of Cats with the emotional gravities of phantomwhich made de Waal’s work even more embarrassing when she entered Lady Dee black sheepskin sweaters and pussy-bow blouses. She had to look, sound, walk and talk like Diana Spencer, the future queen, while sticking to the complex line between power-pop belter and modest ballad.
Broadway is still slowly reopening in New York, but in the meantime the world can enjoy recording Diana: The musical,, is now streaming on Netflix. You already know the strokes of the story: An underestimated princess in love with a prince loses her tale when she realizes that his heart belongs to someone else. In response, the princess responds with her own stellar power and captures some of her freedom in the process. This is a tale that never manages to shock and inspire, as can be seen from the numerous films inspired by Diana, television broadcasts, books and – now – musicals that attended entertainment both during her life and after her death. Hollywood hosts such as Naomi Watts and Kristen Stewart have already played the People’s Princess, but de Waal is not intimidated by her contemporaries. She is revered – and she also knows that a musical is the full 180 of, say, the melancholy meditation of the coming Spencer.
In no other environment could Diana’s lover, James Hewitt, ride a shirt without a horse. Nor could he Barbara Cartland, the syrupy romance writer Diana, loved as a girl, serves as a pseudo-narrator. In one scene, a chorus of paparazzi dressed in trench coats fluttered their thighs against a light bulb. An entire issue is dedicated to the famous Lady Dee Revenge Dress. True, Diana, the famous joker, might have rejoiced at the folly of it all. But de Baal does a skilful job of knowing when to step back and honor the sadness that so defined the young woman’s life. Her career on Broadway so far has included experiments with Strange boots and An American idiot, both rock-pop powerful, but there was never a question about it Diana will be her most demanding role to date.
Below, the actress talks about the struggle to embody a global icon, about her hopes for hosting the show on Netflix and why now is the right time for Diana’s musical.
Have you ever hesitated to take on this role, playing one of the most enduring icons in the world?
I think I would be if I didn’t like the taste of the show. I might think Oh, maybe that’s not the right part for mebut I love the taste of the show. I think we hold on to integrity. We really work to find humanity in everyone. I trusted them not to do things that were shameful or rude.
How familiar were you with the story of Princess Diana before you started rehearsing for this role?
I knew her. She felt very familiar because my mother and grandmother loved her so much. So, it was a really sad day in our house when she died. But I was not aware of all the intricacies of the story, everything that happened and how much he did not know what he was getting himself into. There’s so much juicy in the story that I didn’t know.
So where did you go to explore? What did you do to start digging into this woman’s heart?
The first thing was just YouTube videos, YouTube videos, YouTube videos, watching and seeing what I can emulate. And then I really swallowed everything she had written. And then the finale was physical work. I did this for about three sessions a week, for three months, so when you’re wearing belts or you’re emotional, you’re on stage, you’re not suddenly going back to your old posture, it’s built into your bones.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for her incarnation?
I would say that this gave my character a burning intention, which is interesting for the viewers to watch, even when she goes through the phase, for lack of a better word, of sacrifice. So that you don’t really get lost in this sadness. It was also a collaboration with the writers: How long will we leave her in this place where everything beats her? How does its quiet power ferment? When does it begin to manifest?
You have such an interesting transition from Act I to Act II, where Diana transforms from naive and lost to intelligent and stylish – and, of course, angry. What was the process of sticking hair, makeup and expensive in both actions so that the audience felt these changes?
The first thing was that I was initially put on flat shoes because she always wore flat shoes. But I’m short. That changed quickly and my shoes are now on high heels. They are hidden because there is a huge wedge in front. So you think they look like normal shoes, but they’re about five inches high. And then for the wigs, the wigs were so challenging to fasten, especially the wigs from Act I. We went through so many repetitions; they were a constant conversation.
When did you realize you had the right look?
[Laughs] Well, I think I can still be picky. I don’t know how to answer that.
What is your favorite song from the show?
I think it’s “I’ll do it.” I love to sing it. It really fits well in my voice and it was a new song. I like the Celtic sound to it; I think this is really unique.
The writers, David Brian and Joe DiPietro, told you why they think this is a story that is important to tell right now, as a musical?
There was so much for [Diana’s story], and so much that was not necessarily known about it. I think they thought it allowed for a really interesting study of these three people – Charles, Camilla and Diana – and how they arranged this really complicated marriage. [Bryan and DiPietro] were excited by this perspective.
How was this role different from the ones you played before? And is this your favorite role so far?
This is definitely my favorite role so far. It’s different because this is the first time I’ve got a lead role. This means that there is a rather modest responsibility and something I take very seriously. There is also some knowledge and ownership of it that you helped develop this. You have seen it grow.
This musical, released on Netflix, is part of a relatively new phenomenon of big musicals making their way to the big screen. Hamilton was one of the first. Do you have an opinion on whether this is a good move for the theater or not and how it affects your own performance?
I’m excited that everyone can have their own opinion and that we can get around the really harsh theatrical audience in New York. I’m excited that my friends and family at home can see what I’m doing. I am excited to have a memory of this work. I think you often do theater and it’s just lost. It’s just a memory. This will really have a copy of all the work we put in.
How did the filmed version come together in the first place? When did you find out that Netflix would record the show?
Maybe it was July or the end of June 2020 that we were told. We knew something was coming, but I thought it would be just a show. Surprise! Then we have Zoom and they said we were shooting it for Netflix. There was nothing I could hope for on the radar.
The actual experience was a whirlwind. We recorded the acting album on the day of. The first thing we did when we entered the theater was two tracks back to back. So they had a full shot of the film. The other thing that was crazy is usually when you’re in the theater, the orchestra is strong. You are strong in the speakers, and the audience is strong. But with Netflix, there was no audience; there was no orchestra. The music director will play as little as possible to keep you in tune, because they wanted clear sound from the microphone. It sounded to us like we were doing the show acoustically.
This opening song, you go out and it felt so amazing. I felt, oh my god, that’s the most boring thing. I just had to trust it wasn’t boring.
You are preparing to start rehearsals for Broadway on October 10. What is it like to prepare for this return?
Broadway, I’m sure you’ve heard that, is like a marathon. There is one week at Christmas we have 12 performances in one week. Imagine doing the show 12 times a week. But you know that your body can do it. For example, if you danced in high school, whatever you are, you came back after the semester and it will knock you out. After three days, you say to yourself, “I can’t walk.” But here we were preparing; we know it’s been coming for a few months. So we worked, we sang, all these things. I’m excited about that.
In a move very similar to Diana’s, you yourself recently started a charity. What can you tell us Weekends on Broadway?
We have been performing it since 2017 as a theater camp for adult amateurs. And during this pandemic, we went online – we hosted more than 25 online theater lessons a week for thousands of students in 40 countries.
Coming out of this pandemic, we know how to make online theater education great. So we unite with Diana: The musical to create an educational program for theater that uses film as a source material. The workbooks will include things that secondary and secondary school teachers can adapt for use in the classroom to suit their students’ ability level and timeline. And then you’ll have a live interactive workshop with one of the cast and crew in the movie you just watched.
The thing about Diana was that she could connect with almost anyone – except, perhaps, her husband’s family. What did you find in it to connect on a personal level?
I think that like her I am definitely human and I have the ability to connect with people. I was definitely inspired to put more effort into connecting with everyone I interacted with. I don’t hold my energy, I release it.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
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