Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: A Conversation With Jeanna De Wall, Broadway’s Princess Diana

Actress Jeanna de Waal has appeared on Broadway’s musical theater stage before – she was among the replacement casts for both Kinky Boots and American Idiot. She was in 2012’s Off Broadway reimagining of the cult musical Carrie, played Glinda in the touring production of Wicked and made her West End debut in the Queen musical We Will Rock You.

But it’s safe to say that originating the starring role in the upcoming Broadway premiere of Diana – she plays Princess Di – will put de Waal in an entirely new spotlight. Directed by Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley (Come From Away) and the writers behind the Tony Award–winning musical Memphis (Joe DiPietro and David Bryan), Diana premiered in a pre-Broadway, twice-extended engagement last year at the La Jolla Playhouse. Subsequent workshops and fine-tuning continued thereafter, with previews beginning at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre on March 2, with a planned opening night of March 31.

The cast was rehearsing on stage when news of Broadway’s monthlong coronavirus shutdown came on March 12. Within days, de Waal went from what she calls the “whirlwind” schedule of a musical about to open – including intensive gym workouts – to fighting, as we all are, the easy temptations of snacking and loafing during these weeks of social isolation.

Described by producers as “the story of the most famous woman of the modern age: Diana, Princess of Wales” who was thrust “into a spotlight brighter than any the world had ever known,” Diana also stars Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles, Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth and Zach Adkins as Andrew Parker Bowles.

In this conversation, de Waal spoke to Deadline about, among other things, the moment the cast learned of the shutdown, keeping performance-ready, and the role theater will play after the crisis.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

DEADLINE: Can you describe for me how your life has changed in the last week?

JEANNA DE WAAL: We’ve literally gone from sort of this whirlwind schedule of having every hour packed in the day with press and rehearsal and shows at night to suddenly a grinding, screeching halt where I’m having this conversation with you on my couch right now – a bit of difference in in how the last week started and how it ended.

DEADLINE: Did you see this coming?

DE WAAL: There had been little rumors and pitches about it. It definitely all sort of felt like it sped up last week and happened quite quickly. I think I definitely didn’t suspect this at the start of the week, but come close to Wednesday and Thursday morning but it was something me and my boyfriend at home were discussing like this is quite likely to happen. But even then it happened quite quickly. We came into rehearsal and we were told that produces were all have a meeting at the Broadway League. And then we continued rehearsal through the day and obviously you could see the creatives in the house refreshing their phones and then all the actors a refreshing their phones on. And actually our call came out before we had a meeting, they said, Oh gosh everyone take a 10, and we went away and  So they said, Oh, gosh, everyone, take a 10 and we went away and then we came together and that’s when our producer sat us down and let us know.

So definitely around Wednesday it seemed quite likely, just with everything else going on in the world.

DEADLINE: And what was the mood like at that point among the cast?

DE WAAL: A huge disappointment, huge sadness. I think it depends where you lie in the production. I think might be some relief on the producer side, since it might have been tougher to stagger through with waning audiences. And it’s an everyone’s in the same boat sort of thing.

Whereas with the actors, it quite a lot of shock and surprise. I think there really were a lot of people who really weren’t expecting this to happen, so a lot of disbelief and sadness and they we all tried to come together and have hope that this might be a pause but we’re definitely gonna pick up again and we’re gonna pick up with gusto. I mean, we’re ready to go, our show is ready to go, we’ve got the theater, we’ve got the budget needed, so once we got over the shock and surprise and sadness, there were lots of conversations from the from the writers like, Well, we’re going to use this time to write a new song! So we definitely left the meeting like, look, we are going to come back, this show is ready, we’re excited and when everyone comes back and needs an outlet after they’ve sat at home for the next however long the arts will be there to reunite everyone. And we’ll all be ready, and it will happen.

DEADLINE: How does a sudden break like this impact you as an actress? I mean, I don’t quite know how to put this, but could you get creaky?

DE WAAL: Oh, before we started rehearsal I’d been working out with a personal trainer twice a day, five times a week for three months. I mean, I was ready! I was ready to go! And now that gyms are closed down, and it’s obviously very easy when you’re sitting at home all day to start snacking on the cheese and on the sweets and on the chips, you know. There is a clear awareness on my part that I can’t come back looking like I sat on the couch for eight weeks, and that’s my responsibility to maintain where I was at and keep my voice healthy and all those things to take precautions to protect from this virus, which is a cough! You know, the worst thing a singer can do – cough!  

So yeah, on my part there’s definitely an awareness to stay in the best shape as I can in this break.

DEADLINE: Do you stay in touch with other cast members in any sort of rehearsal type of way, or are you really, truly in social isolation at this point?

DE WAAL: Yes, social isolation for sure. We’re texting and stuff, but no we’re not hanging out. It is likely I believe we may go into rehearsal before we go back into performances just to sort of work in any new ideas that have come up, or brush up and all those things. So it’s likely we’ll go into rehearsal before we go back into the theater.

DEADLINE: What’s the talk among the cast about the financial impact of this on them?

DE WAAL: We are waiting to hear. This is obviously unprecedented times, and we don’t know if we’re going to get paid or some sort of compensation. We don’t know the answers yet to that.

DEADLINE: Diana is a major new musical, and you have the lead role, the title character. Describe for me what the anticipation just of that was like, and then this added drama on top of it.

DE WAAL: I’ve been working on this show for two and a half years now, the creative team has been working on it longer, and what’s gone into it to get it to this point is multiple readings and workshops and out-of-town performances. And obviously doing performances for backers to raise the millions of dollars it take to get a show to Broadway. Then the getting of a Broadway house, which in itself is a hugely competitive process. There’s so many shows that want a Broadway house and we got selected or however that happens. And we’d gone into very intense training in the months before to be ready to do eight shows a week, which is a physical marathon by any stretch of the imagination, performing a show for three hours eight times a week. And then go into a full blown rehearsals with dress most mornings, then rehearsals from noon till six and then shows 7 to 11 and for audiences. Our first audiences had such fantastic responses and then all of a sudden on a Thursday we’re told that Broadway would go dark for the foreseeable future. 

So a big shock to everyone involved and very scary, but we are united in the fact that we will be returning. We have a show that’s ready. We have a theater, and we have the budget to put this show on, and we can’t wait to be there to have audiences again. You know, social distancing is the opposite of what an audience is, Which is a group of humanity collectively in the dark, sharing a story as one, and people need that. With any crisis, the arts does tend to surge upwards because people need that contact and that spirit and that celebration, and we will definitely be there to lead that effort on Broadway.


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