‘Diana the Musical’ star Jeanna de Waal as Princess Diana on Netflix and Broadway
Jeanna de Waal is used to waiting. She first landed the title role in Diane: the musical, which explores the life story of the late Princess of Wales almost five years ago, starting with a workshop in 2017 at the Powerhouse Theater at Vassar College, which was followed by a run at La Jolla Playhouse in 2019. The Broadway show debut at the Longacre Theater was slated for March 31, 2020, but Diane only managed nine previews before Broadway closed. Weeks turned into months, but de Waal remained optimistic.
“I have kept the faith that we will be back all this time,” she said.
LOOK DIANA: THE MUSICAL
And they come back. Diane: the musical will be released on Netflix on October 1 before finally opening on Broadway on November 17, making it the first Broadway musical to air before its opening night on stage. Given the success of The crown, the enduring appeal of the royal family, and the fierce appetite for anything to do with the late princess, there’s a good chance this will be a runaway success.
Christopher Ashley, who led every iteration of Diane (including the Netflix movie, which was recorded last summer without an audience), knew straight away, all those years ago, that de Waal was its star. “She captured the shyness and sparkle of 19-year-old Diana, and she grew in conviction and maturity, so from her third scene we felt we were sharing the room with Diana at the height of her powers.” , he recalls.
Born in Germany, de Waal grew up in Britain in a family of artists; she and her sister Dani, an actress turned software engineer, both attended Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, and the family made weekends in London to attend West End shows. Although Dani left the acting world, Jeanna continued on, making her West End debut at age 22 in we will Rock You. A year later, she moved to the United States without an agent and without a job, but she quickly landed her first role on Broadway, in american idiot.
Like Diana, de Waal is not a simple ingenuous. She has entrepreneurial instincts: It was her idea in 2017 to found Broadway Weekends, an adult drama camp taught by artists from New York and London, which she now runs with her sister. During the pandemic, they switched to an online format called Broadway Weekends at Home, offering 80 workshops per month and special programs like a one-day class led by the original cast from Prom. It’s a way of democratizing the theater and giving fans a chance to fully experience the material.
“We’re used to the theater to be this passive experience where we sit in an audience and receive it, and maybe discuss it at dinner,” de Waal explains. “With Broadway Weekends, there is a real chance to dive into both the material of the shows, but also your own experience of becoming an artist, whether you want to do it professionally or not.”
Her sister Dani agrees, adding that Broadway weekends have become something of a world class room and creative coping mechanism. “With the pandemic and the isolation that everyone was experiencing, the need for a community became vital,” she says. “It was really amazing to see the range of nationalities and ages that all came together.”
Since her show went dark, de Waal has embarked on the expansion of Broadway weekends while hoping for updates on Diane. Last July, the cast gathered on Zoom to create new pages and were taken aback by the news from Netflix – and received about four weeks before filming began. Cue the workouts; when the show was first in rehearsal, de Waal said CGV she was taking Gyrotonics lessons to learn to move and behave like a princess. “She’s like a gazelle, the way she moves,” she said, noting that after workouts (and thanks to the lifts tucked in her shoes), “I’ll be a lot taller.”
De Waal says she grew up in a ‘Team Diana’ household – when Diana passed away her sister Dani remembers their mother and grandmother also being upset ‘like they had lost a personal friend’ – but didn’t didn’t know much about her beyond her iconic status. While preparing for the role, de Waal watched hundreds of hours of Diana’s YouTube footage, but deliberately avoided any theatrical performances (despite being an avid follower of The crown.)
The challenge of playing one of the world’s most famous women is to telegraph who she was, rather than what happened to her, and project her mark of gentle authority.
“His power was to want to connect, at every moment, these small moments of interaction and the hopes of these interactions,” explains de Waal. “For a long time, before she harnessed her power, a lot of things were done to her. That was the unique challenge of this show, not just sitting there and everything hitting me, and not having momentum in my own show. I think there is a great opportunity to explore new types of protagonists.
Where there is a protagonist, there must be an antagonist, but de Waal is resistant to calling a character in the production a villain. “If we start with Charles and Camilla, I also have a deep sympathy for them,” she said. “I think it was a really complicated situation.”
When it comes to today’s royals, especially Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, de Waal understands why they might want to find a way out of The Firm. “You get a life and you are allowed to follow it however you want,” says de Waal. “And if they think they’ll be happier leaving the royal family, then custom or tradition isn’t what should hold them back, and they should pursue that for themselves.”
After an undeniably dark and difficult time, de Waal is hoping the musical can inspire audiences to believe again. “Even though you’re a tiny little light and seem like you’re in a black hole and no one is helping you, trust that little inner voice,” she says. “We all have this, and we have to listen to it.”
So in a way it fits Diane will be seen on screen before the stage, shown in lounges around the world. It’s accessible and intimate, just like Diana herself and the woman who’s been waiting for years to play her.
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