Of all the British royals, the one that most captured hearts and headlines was Diana, Princess of Wales. She was barely 20 in 1981 when she married Prince Charles (he was 32) and when she died in a car crash 16 years later, the whole world mourned.
In between, was a not-so-happy, not-so-private life that provided rich material for "Diana," a musical about to have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse.
"Diana" reunites the Tony-winning trio of Joe DiPietro, David Bryan and Christopher Ashley, whose show, "Memphis," was staged at the Playhouse in 2008 and went on to win "Best Musical" on Broadway in 2010. From the pre-opening buzz around "Diana," it looks like they may have another big hit on their hands.
Playwright/lyricist DiPietro — a Jersey boy, straight outta Teaneck, was last seen at the Playhouse in 2016 with his non-musical "Hollywood." He has over a dozen on- and off-Broadway shows to his credit, including the long-running "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." With composer/lyricist David Bryan, he also co-wrote "The Toxic Avenger," an award-winning musical based on a 1980s cult movie, and "Chasing the Song," a 1960s-era musical they work-shopped at the Playhouse in 2014 that's heading for production sometime in 2020.
Bryan — another Jersey boy — is best-known as keyboardist for the rock band Bon Jovi, which has been selling records (over 150 million) and selling out world tours since the early 1980s. And Chris Ashley is the Playhouse's Artistic Director, whose most recent triumph, "Come From Away," won him a Tony for Best Director of a Musical in 2017.
What first drew DiPietro to writing about Princess Di?
"I read a lot of history and biography, and I found myself reading about her a few years ago," he said in a recent interview. "I didn't know much about her, and I was fascinated; she seemed like a great aspirational character for a musical. She was just a teenager when she started dating Charles, and then — overnight — she became the most famous woman in the world. She believed in true love, and when the love life she was imagining didn't work out, she switched to charity."
DiPietro was touched by a photo of Diana holding an AIDS baby. "Her empathy was almost supernatural," he said. "She was fragile, but really big-hearted. She knew how to value people who didn't feel valuable. They described her as an angel."
And then there was Charles. "He was bred to be an old man," said Di Pietro. "And he was in love with Camilla, a woman he couldn't marry. Queen Elizabeth clearly had a huge influence on his marriage. Diana was a modern young woman entering a very ancient mindset."
Prince Charles is now 70, the longest heir apparent ever, surpassing Queen Victoria's son, who became Edward VII. And Camilla may someday become Queen of England, if Charles outlives his mother, the longest reigning monarch, who has broken her great-great grandmother Victoria's 63-year record by four years.
"Diana" doesn't deal with the later details of their lives. It's focused on the couple's courtship, marriage and separation, with only a brief epilogue addressing what happened afterward. DiPIetro calls it a show about three people trying to navigate through a troubled marriage — with an epic background. And, of course, music.
"I'm very proud of the show," he said. "I can't wait to see it in front of an audience. "Things have moved along fairly quickly, and people got excited about it right from the start. It's been three years now, not very long for a show with a cast of 20. I think everyone taps into Diana's sense of empathy. I wish she were around now, in these less empathetic times."
• IF YOU GO: "Diana" will be at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the UC San Diego campus; Feb. 19-April 7, 2019 and some performances are already sold out. Tickets from $86. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org