The year is 1902. Eighteen-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt has just returned home after three years in a progressive girls' school in England. Shy, not pretty, and with deep feelings of inadequacy, she dreads the upcoming social rituals expected of a debutante.
In a First Class train carriage, Eleanor is engrossed in a book describing conditions in New York's slums (How the Other Half Lives). She is spotted by her distant cousin, twenty-year-old Franklin Roosevelt, a handsome dandy on his way home from Harvard.
Seeing a pregnant immigrant women being ousted from the First Class car, Eleanor instinctively goes to her rescue. Franklin is intrigued by Eleanor's spontaneous reaction to a minor injustice.
At "The Assembly Ball," Eleanor is presented to New York Society. As the father serenade their debutante daughters (Our Beautiful Daughters). Eleanor, orphaned at age 10, remembers her own beloved father -- a dashing man destroyed by alcoholism.
Tart-tongued cousin Alice Roosevelt and Franklin lead the young people in a giddy dance (The New Century Walk). Eleanor, feeling awkward and left out, tries to flee the ball, but is intercepted by Franklin. As they dance, he draws her out, discovering that she does volunteer work with the poor. Once again, he is fascinated.
Eleanor is teaching immigrant children at a settlement home on the Lower East Side. Franklin pays a surprise visit. When a young girl reveals an injury she received at her sweatshop job, Eleanor soothes the child (Give) as Franklin tries to help. They are beginning to fall in love.
At the Hyde Park family estate, Franklin seeks the approval of his formidable and doting mother Sara. Despite Sara's sly maneuvering to keep them apart, Franklin vows to marry Eleanor.
Eleanor's uncle, President Teddy Roosevelt gives the bride away (United). Later that evening Sara presents her wedding gift -- a New York townhouse -- with a house for herself next door. That night Eleanor expressed her dismay to Franklin, who calms her fears (Running Before the Wind).
The couple settles into the rarefied life of their privileged life. But not for long. Sara is aghast when Eleanor expressed the desire to return to her social work (First You Serve Your Husband). The confrontation is interrupted when Franklin arrives with the news that he's been offered a chance to go into politics. He promises Eleanor that they'll work together as a team.
Louis Howe, a brash and savvy newspaperman, sensed the naive Franklin's political potential and takes him under his wing (Practical Politics). Eleanor is advised to smile and stand beside her husband like a good political wife.
Washington D.C.: When Franklin is appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor does her best to be that "good political wife." But the threat of war and the Washington social whirl (Foggy Bottom), along with five children and a difficult mother-in-law, begin to take a toll on their marriage (The Life of the Party).
Franklin is annoyed when Eleanor is unable to attend a Navy event. She suggests her social secretary as her replacement for the evening and Lucy Mercer, young and attractive, agrees to help out (Dancing On and On). Vacationing with the children at the Roosevelt summer home in Campobello while Franklin remains behind in Washington, Eleanor begins to sense that something has gone wrong. Finally, Franklin's affair with Lucy is revealed and Eleanor's world is turned upside down.
At a family conference, Eleanor listens stoically as Sara, Howe and the family lawyer confront Franklin with the possible consequences of the affair (What Would You Do About Eleanor). To herself, Eleanor vows to take control of her life and never again live it for someone else (Doing).
Gently but firmly, Howe makes Lucy realize the future Franklin would have to give up for them to have a life together. Hurt, confused, deeply in love, Lucy makes the choice to end the affair (Dancing On and On - Reprise). Franklin asks Eleanor's forgiveness and a chance to start over. She can forgive, she says, but she cannot forget (If We Go On). The two agree to begin a new kind of partnership.
At the 1920 Democratic Convention, Franklin is nominated for Vice President (The Life of the Party - Reprise). As Franklin speaks before an admiring crowd, Eleanor realizes that the causes he so powerfully espouses are hers (He Touches Me).
The next summer at Campobello, Howe tries to persuade Eleanor to take a more active political role. But Eleanor feels almost phobic about public speaking. After a swim, Franklin complains of feeling ill. The diagnosis is polio. Franklin begins a series of disappointing therapies. Denying the possibility that he may be permanently disabled, Franklin and a band of cronies wile away the months aboard a Florida houseboat (Nothing in Particular).
Howe confides to Eleanor his fear that Franklin will be forgotten unless Eleanor starts going before the public and speaking on his behalf. She is appalled by the prospect -- but Howe suspects her hidden strength (Fun!). On the stump she begins to gain confidence in her voice. Soon she is feeling the freedom to express her own opinions. She is emerging.
Back in New York, Eleanor has learned that Franklin will never walk again. Finally standing up to Sara, she challenges Franklin to overcome his disability and return to politics. Franklin agrees to make a speech at the Democratic convention (If We Go On - Reprise). There is no time to celebrate. Eleanor is late for a speech of her own.
As Eleanor makes her speech (Give - Finale) we realize that she has finally come into her own. It is the end of the journey of a shy, unsure young woman - and the beginning of quite another.