By Charles Passy
It’s been 24 years since Princess Diana died tragically in a car crash. But if you’ve been to the theater or movies lately, it might seem as if the famed figure in British royalty, known as Lady Diana Spencer before she married (and later divorced) Prince Charles, has hardly left us.
This past month, a new show, “Diana, the Musical,” that chronicles her tumultuous life as a royal, opened on Broadway, after having already streamed as a Netflix (NAS:NFLX) special for several months. And a new film, “Spencer,” which stars Kristen Stewart and looks at a few critical days in Diana’s marriage to Charles, also debuted.
All this follows the global success of “The Crown” series on Netflix about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the last season of which paid close attention to the story of Diana. And there continues to be a steady stream of Diana books as well, with more to come. Due in 2022: “The Lady Di Look Book: What Diana Was Trying to Tell Us Through Her Clothes” (St. Martin’s Griffin), written by Eloise Moran, creator of the @ladydirevengelooks Instagram (NAS:FB) account.
So what’s fueling this continued fascination — and multiple portrayals of Diana in popular culture?
Ultimately, hers is just a great story. Or so says actress Jeanna de Waal, who plays Diana in the new Broadway musical.
“There are so many ups and there are so many downs” to the princess’ tale, says de Waal. And let’s not forget the tabloid element, which the often decidedly campy musical plays up: “There are elements to the story that are shockingly juicy and there’s so much room for drama to be written,” de Waal adds.
Other factors come into play, others suggest. Perhaps most notable is the fact that the principal figures in Diana’s story — namely, Charles and his longstanding love interest-turned-second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, plus Diana’s two children, Prince William and Prince Harry — are very much with us today. Diana “still has resonance largely through her sons,” says Stephen Bates, a British writer who’s long covered the royal family and is author of the book, “Royalty Inc.” (Aurum Press).
Indeed, many have seen parallels between Diana and Harry’s wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, a former actress, particularly in terms of their struggles as royals and the way they both went public with those troubles .
And as Bates reminds us, Diana’s ex-husband “is still going to be king one day.” (To say nothing of her son William, second in line to the throne.)
Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert who’s director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says the current boom in all things Diana speaks more to the fact humans are almost hard-wired to love fairy tales. And Diana’s story is the closest thing we have to a modern-day fairy tale.
“It’s this wonderful anachronism,” he says, noting that Diana’s royal wedding to Charles was like “one big national cosplay.”
Thompson also says that Diana very much came to usher in the modern era of celebrity — and in being chased by paparazzi during that ill-fated car ride in Paris, she “met her death on the altar of celebrity,” he says. But the real point, he says, is that in a culture that so fragmented, our fascination with celebrities becomes the one thing that often unites us.
Almost needless to say, because of our seemingly insatiable interest in celebrities in general and Diana in particular, there’s money to be made in telling her story. It’s basically an extension of what happened when Diana was alive, says Thompson: Publications “around the world knew that having her face on the cover would sell thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of extra copies.”
Which is not to say that every Diana project will resonate. The Broadway musical has gotten particularly bad reviews and the “Spencer” movie had a relatively tepid showing at the box office, with an opening weekend of $2.149 million, according to Deadline .
Still, de Waal, the Broadway Diana, remains hopeful, noting that many Diana fans are coming to the theater to relive her story in all its triumphant and tragic detail. “People are having a great time at our show,” she says.