Eleanor: An American Love Story

Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

Someday American musical theater will make it into the 90s–probably in the 21st century. We old folks will hobble out of our suburban town houses to catch A Place Called Hope: The Bill Clinton Story or Limbaugh: The Rise of an American Legend. Whatever, it will surely be some anesthetized, Disney-fied take on a supposedly more innocent and simpler time. One look at the New York Times theater listings shows just how out of touch musicals have gotten. Of 15 listed, 13 are period pieces and the other 2 (Beauty and the Beast and Cats) might as well be. A good chunk of them are revivals of revivals of revivals. Damn Yankees and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying? Again? Grease?!

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when musicals were sometimes relevant, when composers like Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, and even George Gershwin used this consummately American art form as a means of social commentary as well as entertainment. Today, though–despite the every-season-or-two aberration–even the musical that attempts to address contemporary issues is still primarily a vehicle for nice costumes and hummable songs, preventing the audience from thinking too long or too hard.

Eleanor: An American Love Story, a tuneful biography of the young Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is a case in point. Severely simplifying the story of a complex American icon, it reduces Eleanor Roosevelt to a few familiar characteristics and predictable rhymes–she’s turned into a generic musical theater heroine whose songs could as easily be sung by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita Peron (or the title character in a possibly forthcoming musical, “Iron Lady: The Musical Life of Maggie Thatcher”).

Entering the theater one wonders how Jonathan Bolt, Thomas Tierney, and John Forster in their book, music, and lyrics will address all the issues and historical events that confronted the Roosevelts. You know, stuff like the Depression and Pearl Harbor and World War II, like Franklin’s death and Eleanor’s fight for human rights with the United Nations. But never mind all that. This musical is set in the fantasy world of “a young country in a young time” and prefers to glide gently past social issues and concentrate on the story of how a wide-eyed, awkward wallflower (“She’s such a mope! She’s always been such a mope!”) blossomed into full womanhood.

Eleanor begins in the young, innocent year of 1894 with our young, innocent heroine’s fantasies about her deceased father, a dreamer whose idealism influences Eleanor throughout her life. We follow young, innocent Franklin’s courtship of her, her work at a settlement house, their marriage, Franklin’s early political career, and his affair with their social secretary and bout with polio. The musical concludes in 1924 with Eleanor finding her own political voice and learning to stand beside rather than behind her husband in their fight for social justice.

The parallels with contemporary politics are striking: a young, charismatic, good-hearted but philandering politician forges an alliance with his wife out of common social interests rather than love. But instead of exploring the similarities to our present First Couple, Eleanor glosses over the irony of a public humanitarian who’s privately a scoundrel. And after Franklin and Eleanor’s reconciliation, the heroine is portrayed as the unwavering sort who stands by her man. This Eleanor’s heart melts when she hears Franklin address a crowd: “His heart is good. I can tell,” she sings. “He tries so hard and means so well.” Franklin’s infidelity seems a matter of course, an indiscretion brought about as much by Eleanor’s prudishness and devotion to her children as by Franklin’s immaturity and insensitivity.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a written biography of a political figure so devoid of political ideas. Despite Eleanor’s dedication to helping the poor, overturning child labor laws, and fighting for women’s suffrage, Eleanor focuses on FDR’s luxurious lifestyle, the fancy houses and debutante balls. The only poor folks we see are a few scrubbed immigrants in an early scene and some grossly stereotyped country bumpkins Franklin tries to con into voting for him. FDR’s street-smart right-hand man Louis Howe lectures Franklin that he should court the country vote and “think cow” in the hackneyed musical number “Practical Politics” (which recalls “Politics and Poker” from Fiorello!, only without the jokes). The few political speeches we hear are all-too-familiar paeans to social justice that could have been uttered by just about any politician.

There are powerful moments in this Marriott’s Lincolnshire Chicago-area premiere that suggest the potential for a dramatic musical treatment. The song that opens the second act–“What Do We Do About Eleanor?”–is moving and almost hypnotically reserved, as the Roosevelt family and confidants discuss keeping the couple together. And the scenes in which Eleanor cares for her polio-stricken husband are filled with pathos. But these points are few, crammed in among too many scenes of FDR’s stuck-up, overprotective mother kvetching about Eleanor’s improprieties and too many beautifully sung but entirely unmemorable songs chock-full of homilies (“The way to receive is to give,” Eleanor sings). Glaringly representative of this musical’s lack of a political voice is one scene near the climax in which Howe (played with show-stopping Stubby Kaye moxie by Joel Hatch) coaches Eleanor on political speaking. He shows no concern for her ideas, however, but focuses on whether she can have “fun,” also the title of the song. Eleanor the Frump must loosen up, let her hair down and have a good time.

This production, impeccably directed by Joe Leonardo, features magnetic performances from Anne Kanengeiser and the irrepressible Larry Yando in the lead roles. No doubt Eleanor will go over well with those looking for easy-listening show tunes, some smiley dancing, and an endorsement of good, old-fashioned family values. Eleanor Roosevelt would have had something better to do.