FARNKFURT, Germany – A new musical that honors Princess Diana as a heroine on the scale of Evita or Aida opens this weekend in southern Germany.
Unlike the 1998 West End hit comedy Love Upon the Throne, which poked fun at the British royals' romantic escapades, Lady Di — Diana — A Smile Charms the World is intended as a "memorial" to the woman whose warmth and humanity redefined the House of Windsor.
German producer Karl-Heinz Stracke, who was in London at the time of Diana's death in 1997, said he was so struck by the outpouring of grief that he decided to honor the princess the only way he knew how — through music.
Nevertheless, he waited several years before bringing the production to the stage. The musical, which opens Saturday in Saarbruecken, follows Diana's life from her fairy-tale wedding to her untimely death.
The cast of 40 is overwhelmingly made up of British actors, although the show will initially be performed in German. While many had experience singing in German, the spoken parts of the script demanded they undergo six months of intensive language training to make sure they could understand, and therefore convey, what they were saying.
"For the longest time I wasn't able to even think about the acting, I was concentrating so hard on the language, thinking that nobody in the audience would understand me," said Karen Gillingham, 28, who stars as Diana.
Despite the linguistic hurdles, Stracke felt that a cast from across the English Channel could bring a certain British flair and knowledge of the royal family to the stage.
"You don't have to tell a Brit how to portray a British butler, they understand that in a way we don't," he said.
The $1 million production will tour Germany and several neighboring countries through the end of the year. Next year, an English-language version is to go up on European stages in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden.
A London production has been discussed, "but that would be another two or three years from now, out of respect," said Stracke, 79, a former opera singer who was director of the Theater des Westens in Berlin before forming his own production company.
According to his production company, ticket sales in Germany so far have been steady.
Written by Volker Fuehrer, the musical depicts Diana as a woman who struggles with the responsibilities and pressures of royal life.
"I tried to make it a psychological portrait, reflecting her strengths and weaknesses," said Fuehrer. "Charles and Camilla also play a role and it is the interaction between these three people that is the basis of the story."
An actor does not portray Prince Charles. Charles, instead, speaks through Diana's secretary.
Despite such precautions, the script was passed through several libel lawyers.
Fuehrer said he culled mountains of press material, and read all the biographies by British and American authors before he wrote the script.
"After that, I had to forget all the rumors and the nonsense and then begin anew with what I felt was the essence of Diana," he said.
Set before 22 different backdrops ranging from elaborate palaces to a menacing oversized camera intended to represent the paparazzi who hounded her until her death, many of the scenes re-create public elements of Diana's life. Still others seek to explore the private princess the world was never allowed to see.
"It was the behind-closed-doors scenes that really challenged me," said Gillingham, who prepared for the role partly by going through her grandmother's scrapbooks of the British Royal family. "It forced me to see her (Diana) differently than I did before."