'Diana' Debuts at La Jolla Playhouse
Artistic Director Christopher Ashley discusses putting the People's Princess centerstage
Jeanna de Waal | Photo by Little Fang
When you’re casting for a role as famous as the Princess of Wales, you certainly don’t expect to find the perfect leading lady on day one. But when four women came to the first audition for Diana, La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical opening this month, the creative team immediately knew they’d found their star.
“Jeanna de Waal absolutely hit a home run with it,” beams Christopher Ashley, the playhouse’s Tony Award–winning artistic director. “We were like, ‘It can’t be this easy. We can’t actually have found our Diana in the first person to walk through the door.”
De Waal agreed, purportedly telling them on her way out, “This is my role, don’t even think of anyone else!”
This ambitious first production of 2019 reunites Ashley with Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics—also the keyboard player for Bon Jovi), all of whom previously collaborated on Memphis back in 2008. That show went on to Broadway the next year for nearly 1,200 performances and won four Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book.
Their dynamic was so successful that when DiPietro and Bryan began developing a musical about the People’s Princess, Ashley was the first director who came to mind. “They said, ‘We think this is a great story and we want you in on the ground floor,’” he says. Choreographer Kelly Devine returns as well—another Memphis alum—fresh from her involvement in a string of hits like Escape to Margaritaville, Come From Away, and Rock of Ages.
After four years of writing and revising, the team found their Diana just before the show’s first reading at New York Stage and Film in Chelsea. De Waal is no greenhorn, and no stranger to San Diego—she played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show at The Old Globe, Glinda in the second national tour of Wicked, and she originated the role of Dawn in Waitress—but this is undoubtedly her biggest role yet. “To bring Diana to life onstage is obviously a huge privilege,” she says. “I feel very daunted by the prospect.”
The story’s appeal may seem distant to a younger generation who came of age after Diana’s death, even given the 21st-century hullabaloos over the weddings of her sons, William and Harry—but Ashley sees a very relatable, human thread at its center. “This is a story about a woman finding her voice; an assistant kindergarten teacher who became the most famous woman in the world,” he says. “And she had an extraordinary impact. Calling attention to land mine safety, incredible fundraising for AIDS early on in the crisis—philanthropically, she was probably the most important person of the 20th century.”
It certainly follows in America’s longstanding fascination with the royal family—as of this writing, two feature films about historical British queens are still in theaters, and Netflix’s The Crown is set to premiere its third season. Asked whether his team had to be conscious of any audience preconceptions from these other works, Ashley says, “These characters are portrayed in so many movies and shows and documentaries, but you have to create your own version of them instead of reacting to other actors. At some point you have to stop and say, ‘We’ve done our research; now we’re going to tell the story as we feel it.’”
The musical is billed as having an “epic and sweeping contemporary score” that Ashley describes as “a collision of the ’80s rock that Diana loves with a contemporary classical feel that’s the world of the monarchy.” He and de Waal are pinning high hopes on the upcoming premiere; advance ticket sales have been so promising that its run has already been extended into April. At the very least, the director hopes audiences will take away “a sense of hope about the difference you can make in the world. There was something very modern about Diana that had an amazing impact on the royal family. The collision between centuries-old tradition and the modern world keeps playing out in that family in fascinating ways.”