Diana: The Musical

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You've read the books. You've seen the documentaries. You may even have hummed the hit single, recycled for the funeral by Sir Elton John. But nothing is likely to have prepared you for the latest in the long line of tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, whose death four years ago in a car crash remains a subject of enduring fascination.

To witness this new landmark in mass entertainment, you will need to travel not to London's West End, nor to the privileged surroundings of Althorp, but to an obscure town in an industrial backwater of Germany. For it was here, in Saarbrücken, close to the French border, that the première took place on Saturday of Lady Di, the first musical to commemorate the life, loves and tragic death of the world's favourite princess. The promoters billed it as "the ultimate fairy-tale experience"; the question was, would the people of Saarbrücken agree?

They certainly turned out in force: an audience of 1,300 watched the first night at the multi-purpose Saarlandhalle, a venue more used to hosting handball tournaments than royalty. And, with music by the German composer Peter Thomas and German lyrics by a librettist called Volker Führer, it sounded as though a thoroughly Teutonic night was in the offing. The cast, however, is all British, as, with the exception of a lone guitarist, are the musicians. And then there is that inimitably British presence at its heart: "Lady Di" herself.

To get one obvious joke out of the way: no, Mercedes is not among the sponsors, despite the national connection. This is a simple story of love, jealousy and intrigue, conveyed with honeyed melodies and racy dialogue. It begins and ends with Diana's death, a sinister, dark-suited figure stepping out of the wreckage to announce: "We are finally rid of her." In between, the "queen of hearts" sings joyfully at her wedding and mournfully of her suspicions of adultery, holds forth earnestly on land mines, and gushes in Dodi's arms: "Oh, I do love roast beef for breakfast." Vignettes of her life flash by, in front of curtain backdrops depicting Buckingham Palace, the all-English cloudy sky, Piccadilly Circus and something meant (I think) to be the British seaside. The production has so far cost DM2m (about £630,000). That such a sum buys only the most spartan of stage props is all too evident.

Diana is played by Karen Gillingham, 28, who learnt her trade at the English National Opera. Slightly built and young, she has otherwise only a remote physical resemblance to our heroine, even with a blond wig on. But to the people of this redundant coal-and-steel town, she is close enough. The audience heartily applauded Gillingham's every voyage to the high Cs. There were soaring arpeggios aplenty from the chorus, too, to the crowd's obvious delight. To my ear, it sounded like Wagner for beginners, laced with pop and just a hint of Star Wars.

Thomas is famous in his homeland for the music he wrote for the cult Sixties series Spaceship Orion on Patrol, and the futuristic touch in his latest work is deliberate. He has described the story of Diana as "a Greek tragedy from the year 2099, for it will still be topical a hundred years from now." If the musical is still running then, he suggests, maybe the producers will teleport her accident from the Place de l'Alma to Jupiter.

Saarbrücken has the producer Karl-Heinz Stracke to thank for bringing it this cultural extravaganza. Stracke, who donned a heavy, black fur coat for the first-night party, looks the picture of a medieval duke. There is, he says, a piece in his heart that is for ever England. He was in London on the day Diana died, and was caught up in the nation's grief: "Everybody went around as if they had been hit on the head. It was then that I decided to erect a musical monument to Diana."

Four years on – "It was not an easy birth" – the result would perhaps be more accurately named "Monument to the Unknown Lawyer". Even the long-winded official title, Lady Di – Diana A Smile Enchants the World, can be credited to Stracke's learned friends. Somebody else had taken out copyright on the working title "Lady Di" the day after her death. The next stop was "Queen of Hearts", but that also drew legal objections. The full title may be a little long, but it is guaranteed writ-free.

The production also had to tiptoe around the sensitivities of living persons, litigious and otherwise. The Queen makes no appearance. The Prince of Wales shows up only twice, seated, the first time, in an armchair, with his back to the audience. He is on the phone to Camilla. "I want to kiss you all over," he drools.

Diana's equestrian "friend" is here called Major Smith, and although Dodi Fayed has a sizeable role – "This is my paradise," the lovers coo, in an idyllic scene aboard his yacht – Diana's doting companion has no name in the musical, merely the appellation "Diana's last friend".

Camilla, however, does get in, with a muscular role and three good songs. Played by Katherine Glasson, a 37-year-old singer with a powerful voice, she wipes the floor with the heroine. In the battle of the women, Camilla has the edge; here, wimpy Diana is always bound to lose. Their duel looks as ill-matched as if Pocahontas were challenging Brünnhilde. "Charles likes chamber music; you like pop," Camilla taunts her rival. In another scene, set among her raucous friends, she lampoons the princess as "an angel from Absurdistan".

But hang on a minute, aren't we supposed to be rooting for the other lady? That may have been the original intention, but the librettist and the songwriters have subverted the plot. Führer wanted to portray all four main characters – Diana, Charles, Camilla and Dodi – as "outsiders". Consequently, we are encouraged to feel sorry for Charles and even for Camilla. According to the author, they are all victims of circumstance.

Glasson relishes her role, saying, "It's always good to play the so-called baddie." She traces the origins of this Germano-Greek tragedy back to the day of the royal wedding. "I think Charles married a girl, and he ought to have married a woman," she says.

Love is unfathomable, but scholarship is based on fact, and few historians will concur with the musical's version of the tragic events of 31 August 1997. Most people blame a drunken driver and a passenger who was not wearing a seat belt. But Saarbrücken was not allowed to delude itself with such simplistic interpretations. After extensive research, the musical was able to reveal the true reason. "It has quite a clear line that the secret service in fact plotted to kill her," explains Jonathan Burns, the actor playing a palace official named Stapleton. His character is a fascinating, ambivalent personality – a loyal servant of Diana caught up in a fiendish plot. "The House of Windsor makes me sick," he sings.

Unsurprisingly, Burns does not think that the show is quite ready for the West End. "I would have thought it would be rather controversial in Britain," he admits. "I think it's sensible to try it out a thousand miles away. In Britain, Diana is an icon. She is a very precious part of British contemporary life."

Gillingham, the leading lady, would also feel "quite uncomfortable" playing Diana in the country in which her children live. "It's a bit too close to their doorstep," she admits.

But German audiences have no such qualms. The adventures of the Windsors are as much a staple diet for the tabloids there as in Britain. Germany loves royals of every hue and is envious of countries where they are in abundance. Their own House of Hanover, embodied by Prince Ernst August, is not nearly as interesting the British royal family. All he has ever done is urinate in public and beat up a few journalists.

Compared with Ernst, the Windsors really are lively, and soon they'll be appearing at halls all over Germany. From Saarbrücken, the Diana roadshow is trundling into Frankfurt. More than 30 towns and cities lie along the itinerary, plus stop-overs in Austria and Switzerland. There are plans to translate the musical into English and take it to Denmark, Sweden and Belgium. On the opening night the producer announced that he was also negotiating with Australia. Britain has so far shown no interest. "I'm waiting for a call," Stracke says, adding that it may take years.

All these great plans hinge, however, on the show's success in its home market. So far, if truth be told, the German critics have not been enthusiastic. Welt am Sonntag retitled it "Royal Horror Picture Show" and was sceptical of its prospects: "The saga of the crèche teacher who wanted to be queen lost its radiance long ago."

Tell that to the punters who paid up to DM100 (£32) for a ticket on the first night. "I don't normally like musicals," said Melanie, 16, who nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed herself. "But I am deeply touched by the whole story of Diana." She will recommend the show to her friends.

But interest is clearly not as overwhelming as Stracke hoped. The tour has already been cut back, leaving the itinerant British singers and musicians with a two-week respite before the next outing. Their contracts are guaranteed only until January, though Stracke maintains that the coming performances have all sold out.

All that is little comfort to Saarbrücken, though, as it contemplates life without Diana. Now bereft of its moment of fame and glamour, the town faces a dark winter. But when the snow melts, light and hope will return. Sesame Street is coming to the Saarlandhalle in April.