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When asked if she thinks the late Princess of Wales would enjoy a musical being made about her life—specifically Diana: The Musical, a rock romp that sees the royal through ages 19 to 36—the actress Jeanna de Waal does not hesitate: “Yes, definitely!” In fact, she's so confident that she hopes Diana's sons, the Princes William and Harry, watch the performance, either now or when the show opens on Broadway on November 17.
It's possible de Waal's right. The princess was fond of both music and theater, particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. But Diana: The Musical is remarkably different from Webber's masterpieces; it, in some ways, attempts to fuse the camp of Cats with the emotional gravitas of Phantom, which made de Waal's job all the more intimidating when she stepped into Lady Di's black-sheep sweaters and pussy-bow blouses. She needed to look, sound, walk and talk like Diana Spencer, the would-be queen, while toeing a tricky line between power-pop belter and demure balladeer.
Broadway is still slowly reopening in New York, but in the meantime the world can enjoy a taping of Diana: The Musical, now streaming on Netflix. You already know the beats of the story: An underestimated princess, in love with a prince, loses her fairy tale when she realizes his heart belongs to someone else. In response, the princess strikes back with her own star power and captures her freedom, to an extent, in the process. It's a tale that never fails to shock and inspire, as evidenced by the numerous Diana-inspired films, TV shows, books, and—now—musicals that have populated entertainment both during her life and after her death. Such Hollywood stalwarts as Naomi Watts and Kristen Stewart have now played the People's Princess, yet de Waal isn't intimidated by her contemporaries. She's honored—and besides, she knows a musical is a complete 180 from, say, the melancholy meditation of the upcoming Spencer.
In no other medium could Diana's lover, James Hewitt, ride in shirtless on horseback. Nor could Barbara Cartland, the syrupy romance writer Diana loved as a girl, serve as a pseudo-narrator. In one scene, a chorus of trench-coat-clad paparazzi gyrate their hips to a backdrop of flashbulbs. An entire number is devoted to Lady Di's famous “revenge” dress. It's true, Diana—a notorious prankster—might have delighted in the silliness of it all. But de Waal does a skillful job of knowing when to pull back and honor the sadness that so defined the young woman's life. Her Broadway career thus far has included stints with Kinky Boots and American Idiot, both rock-pop powerhouses, but there was never a question that Diana would be her most demanding role to date.
Below, the actress talks about the struggle of embodying a global icon, her hopes for the show's reception on Netflix, and why now is the right time for a Diana musical.
Were you ever hesitant about taking this role, playing one of the world's most lasting icons?
I think I would have been if I'd not liked the taste of the show. I maybe would have thought, Oh, maybe this isn't the right part for me, but I love the taste of the show. I think we hold integrity. We really work to find the humanity in everybody. I trusted them not to do stuff that's embarrassing 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 my grandma loved her so much. And so it was a really sad day in our house when she died. But I wasn't aware of all the ins and outs of the story, everything that happened and how unaware she was of what she was getting herself into. There's so much that's juicy to the story that I didn't know.
So where did you go to research? What did you do to start digging into the heart of this woman?
First thing was just YouTube videos, YouTube videos, YouTube videos, watching and seeing what I could emulate. And then I was really devouring anything she'd written. And then the final was physical work. I did that for like three sessions a week, for three months, so that when you're belting or you're emotional, you're in your scene, you don't suddenly revert back to your old posture, but that it's built into your bones.
What would you say was the single most challenging thing about embodying her?
I would say it was giving my character a burning intention that's interesting for an audience to watch, even when she's going through the phase, for lack of a better word, of a victim. To not really get lost in that sadness. That was a collaboration with the writers, too: How long do we leave her in this place where everything is beating down on her? Her quiet power, how does it ferment? When does it start to show itself?
You have such an interesting transition from Act I to Act II where Diana transforms from naive and lost to savvy and stylish—and, of course, angry. What was the process of nailing hair, makeup, and costuming in both acts so the audience could feel those shifts?
The first thing was, initially they put me in flat shoes because she always wore flat shoes. But I'm short. That quickly changed, and my shoes are now the highest heels. They're hidden because there's a massive wedge at the front. So you think they look like normal shoes, but they're about five inches tall. And then for the wigs, the wigs were so challenging to nail down, especially Act I wigs. We went through so many reiterations; they were an ongoing conversation.
When did you know you had the right look?
[Laughs] Well, I think I can still be picky. I don't know how to answer that.
What's your favorite song from the show?
I think it's “I Will.” I love singing it. It really fits nicely in my voice, and it was a new song. I like the Celtic sound to it; I think that's really unique.
Did the writers, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, tell you why they felt this was a story that was important to tell right now, as a musical?
There was so much to [Diana's story], and so much that wasn't necessarily known about it. I think they thought it allowed for really interesting exploration of these three humans—Charles, Camilla and Diana—and how they negotiated this really tricky marriage. [Bryan and DiPietro] were excited by that prospect.
How was this role different from the ones you've done before? And is it your favorite role to date?
It's definitely my favorite role to date. It's different because it's the first time I'm originating a lead role. That means there's a responsibility there that's quite humbling and something I take very seriously. There's also sort of a familiarity and an ownership on it that you helped develop this. You've seen it grow.
This musical coming out on Netflix is part of a relatively new phenomenon of major musicals making their way to the big screen. Hamilton was one of the first. Do you have an opinion on whether or not this is a good move for theater, and how it affects your own show?
I'm excited that everybody gets to make their own opinion and that we get to bypass the really harsh New York theater audience. I'm excited that my friends and family at home can see what I'm doing. I'm excited to have a keepsake of this work. I think, often you do theater, and it's just sort of lost. It's just a memory. This I really will have a copy of all the work we put in.
How did the filmed version come together in the first place? When did you know Netflix would be taping the show?
It was maybe July or end of June 2020 that they told us. We knew something was coming, but I thought it'd just be a performance. Surprise! Then we have a Zoom, and they said we're filming it for Netflix. It was not on my radar for something to be hoping for.
The actual experience was a whirlwind. We recorded the cast album on the day of. The first thing we did when we got into the theater was two runs back to back. So they had a full capture of the movie. The other thing that was crazy was, normally, when you're in the theater, the orchestra is loud. You are loud in the speakers, and the audience is loud. But with Netflix there was no audience; there was no orchestra. The musical director would play as little as he possibly could to keep you in tune because they wanted clean sound from the mic. So it sounded, to us, like we were doing the show acoustically.
That opening song, you come out and it felt so underwhelming. It felt like, oh my gosh, this is the most boring thing ever. I just had to trust that it wasn't boring.
You're preparing to start rehearsals for Broadway on October 10th. What's it like readying for that return?
Broadway, I'm sure you've heard this, is like a marathon. There's a week over Christmas we have 12 shows in one week. Imagine doing the show 12 times in one week. But you know your body can do it. Like if you used to dance in high school, whatever, you used to come back after semester, and it'd knock you out. After three days you're like, “I can't walk.” But here we've been prepping; we've known it's coming for a few months. So we've been working out, we've been singing, all those things. I'm excited for it.
In a very Diana-like move, you yourself recently launched a charity. What can you tell us about Broadway Weekends?
We've been running it since 2017 as theater camp for amateur adults. And during this pandemic, we pivoted online—we've hosted over 25 online theater classes a week to thousands of students across 40 countries.
Coming out of this pandemic, we know how to make online theater education awesome. So we're teaming up with Diana: The Musical to create a theater education program that uses the film as source material. Workbooks will include stuff that middle and high school teachers can adapt for use in class to fit their students' ability level and their timeline. And then you'll have a live and interactive workshop with someone from the cast and crew in the film that you just watched.
The thing about Diana was she could relate to almost anyone—with the exception, perhaps, of her husband's family. What did you find within her to relate to, on a personal level?
I think, like her, I'm definitely a people person, and I have the ability to click in with people. I've definitely been inspired to make more of an effort to click in with everybody who I interact with. Not holding onto my energy, but letting it go.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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