Talking to the Roosevelts: Interview with Eleanor, Franklin, and Sara from the cast of ELEANOR at Media Theatre

Maxwell Porterfield as Eleanor with four children. Photo by Maura Boruchow McConnell.

Eleanor – An American Love Story runs January 29-February 23, 2020, at the Media Theatre. A little-known musical, Eleanor (music by Thomas Tierney, lyrics by John Forster,  book by Jonathon Bolt) has been a favorite at regional theaters since the first production was staged in 1987 in Seattle, WA. The musical is based on the early lives of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, from their passionate courtship, through their complicated marriage with a domineering mother-in-law, to Eleanor’s emerging role as a catalyst for social change in America.

In Media, Eleanor is played by Maxwell Porterfield, Franklin is played by Patrick Ludt,  and Sara Roosevelt (FDR’s mother) is played by actress Susan Wefel (see below for historical biographies). Henrik Eger spoke to the actors about their roles and the real-life characters behind them.

[Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, PA] January 29-February 23, 2020; mediatheatre.org

Patrick Ludt & Maxwell Porterfield as Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1936 Ford Phaeton, parked at the Media Theatre.

Henrik Eger: What did you learn about your character that you did not know until the Media Theatre offered you the job? 

Eleanor Roosevelt (portrayed by Maxwell Porterfield): I didn’t know that Eleanor was reluctant to be a public figure and for her husband to go all the way to the presidency. Not that I expected her to have planned to be First Lady, but rather, I thought that someone who made such a large impact over her lifetime would’ve felt more in her element. Eleanor always wanted to help people, but in her early years, she was very shy and lacking in confidence. Her life is an example that people are not limited to their current circumstances or abilities. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt (portrayed by Patrick Ludt): I learned a lot about the early FDR years that you don’t hear much about in school, including his run for State Senate of New York and his time as Assistant Secretary to the Navy in the Wilson administration.

Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother (portrayed by Susan Wefel): I learned that FDR’s mother was very controlling, and FDR appeared as a bit of a momma’s boy.

Eger: What are your two favorite scenes involving your character and why? 

Maxwell Porterfield

Porterfield as Eleanor RooseveltOne of my favorite scenes is when Eleanor realizes what her interests and life’s work are. I think this is an important realization for every person, but in this case it was the start of a life which made an enormous impact on the world. Another scene poignantly shows how Eleanor chooses to give up the life she wants to serve the greater good. 

Ludt as Franklin Roosevelt: I enjoy the scene where Eleanor and Franklin tell his mother they intend to get married. I think it’s quite funny. Next would be the speech that I recite during one of Eleanor’s songs in the second act, “He Touches Me.” I find the words moving.

Wefel as Sara Delano Roosevelt: Favorite scenes for me are Act 1, Scene 5, the wedding night, when Momma leaves her bedroom at Springwood to visit Franklin and Eleanor for a week and tells them about her newly-constructed plans for a double townhouse in NYC with “connecting floors” so that she can always be with them when they need her. Also, Momma’s lecture to Eleanor about “serving one’s husband first” from Act 1, Scene 7. Poor Eleanor didn’t have a chance! Or did she?  

Eger: Share your favorite quotes from your Roosevelt character and the effect they had on you. 

Porterfield as Eleanor Roosevelt“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This is one that I have known from an early age. It made quite the impact on me, because we live in a world where people try to tell you who you are and label you. Although we can’t control what others say, this quote reminds us that we can choose which voices we listen to.

Patrick Ludt

Ludt as Franklin Roosevelt: “For it is not to our glory that we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little.” I love this quote, which eloquently states that people matter more than money. It compares helping the needy versus increasing the wealth of the rich—posing the question, which is more glorious?

“I have no control over her, Mother; she’s only my wife.” This comes at a moment when Eleanor stands up to Franklin’s mother, Sara, who is telling Franklin to make Eleanor stop. I just think it’s such a clever little answer that shows FDR’s wit and understanding of how, just because they’re married, doesn’t mean he can tell her what to do.

Wefel as Sara Delano Roosevelt: Favorite line—“Franklin, you can’t be a politician; you’re a gentleman!”

Eger: As life goes by faster than many people realize, what would you like the next generation of theatergoers to know about this musical that connects Americans to history? 

Porterfield as Eleanor Roosevelt: Life is so much more than comfort or getting what we want. Eleanor decided to live outside her comfort zone. She was faced with many difficult decisions, and she chose the path that was often the most difficult. These are the kinds of decisions that one has to make in order to live a remarkable life.

Susan Wefel

Ludt as Franklin Roosevelt: This musical provides a good, relatable glimpse into the early lives of Eleanor and FDR. It includes their conflicts in their marriage and shows the early history of their political rise. Most importantly, it demonstrates how Eleanor influenced FDR and how she gained her own political voice over the years.

Wefel as Sara Delano Roosevelt: What I learned from working on the show was that these Roosevelts were real American Royalty. As a result, I gained an appreciation for their hard work on our country’s behalf.

Eger: Many thanks!

[Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, PA] January 29-February 23, 2020; mediatheatre.org

Eleanor Roosevelt promotes the Victory Bond in Times Square. courtesy of History101.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (Oct. 11, 1884 – Nov. 7, 1962), an American political figure, diplomat and activist, acted as the First Lady of the United States from Mar. 4, 1933, to Apr. 12, 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, making her the longest-serving First Lady of the United States. She served as the US Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S. Truman, FDR’s Vice President, later called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements. Watch an historical interview with her from 1958 which shows us in beautiful ways how Eleanor saw life at the White House.

This photo is one of only two that show Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair. Photo by Margaret Suckley.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jan. 30, 1882 – Apr. 12, 1945), often referred to by his initials FDR, served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death. A member of the Democratic Party, he won a record four presidential elections and directed the federal government during most of the Great Depression, implementing his New Deal domestic agenda in response to the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. His third and fourth terms were dominated by World War II. He is rated by scholars as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but has also been subject to substantial criticism. 

Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt (Sept. 21, 1854 – Sept. 7, 1941) was the second wife of James Roosevelt I and the mother of President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her only child, and subsequently the mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt. 

(All three bios adapted from Wikipedia.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor. She holds Franklin’s glass, and he holds her knitting. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library.

The cast of the Media Theatre’s production of Eleanor, An American Love Story—book by Jonathon Bolt, lyrics by John Forster, music by Thomas Tierney, and directed by Jesse Cline—also includes the following talented actors: Roger Ricker as Louis Howe, Hannah Parke as Alice Roosevelt, Kelly Briggs as Theodore Roosevelt and Al Smith, Chelsea Aubert as Lucy Mercer, Lila Bea Hannon and Lily Jo Shelkin as Young Eleanor and Young Anna, Elliott Boldin and Preston Newton as Young James and Hester, Zachary Amos and Tyler Motlasz as Teen James, Lulu Spinelli and Chloe Tomaszweski as Maria, Sutton Gold and Reese Masiello as Spike, and Greyson Heneks and Zoe Nesbitt as Pepini.

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com