Showcasing Bold New Talent
By Lindsy Van Gelder
Portrait by Robert Nethery
On the day of this interview, Jenny Steingart (WSUC ’90) is recovering from a killer flu. She jokingly fears her voice is “just beyond the realm of Lucille Ball after four packs of Camels,” but she’s eager to share her take on her studies at Washington Square University College.
Like most philosophy majors, she took flak for focusing on something so supposedly impractical, but “it altered my course as a human being,” she says. “I still have all of my notes, and in times of adversity and challenge, as nerdy as it is to say, I find myself going back to certain philosophers.”
One of those times came in 1997 with the sudden death of her younger brother, music producer Gabe Wiener. Steingart sought solace in the words of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “What stands in the way becomes the way.” In other words, while we can’t change what happens to us, we can change how we react.
To honor Wiener’s legacy, she and her husband, Jon Steingart, founded Ars Nova (Latin for “New Art”) in 2002. Today it’s regarded as the preeminent incubator of emerging theater, music, and comedy talent.
In 2004, Ars Nova helped an unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda and team turn the hip-hop improv musical Freestyle Love Supreme into an off-Broadway smash. It landed on Broadway in 2019 for a 15th-anniversary limited run; garnered a Special Tony Award in 2020; got its own documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, which premiered on Hulu in 2020; and had a San Francisco debut this year for the national tour she’s coproducing. Ars Nova also produced Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and the adaptation of Tina Fey’s film Mean Girls, both musicals. Other Ars Nova alumni include comedians turned actors Bridget Everett and Billy Eichner and series creators Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl, The Dropout) and Beau Willimon (House of Cards).
Steingart selects her projects carefully—and using her gut. “Things come across my desk all the time that I know will be successful,” she says. “But if I don’t feel passionate about it, or if it doesn’t feel aligned with what I want to put into the world at this moment, I don’t do it.”
So what’s it like to hang out with some of the most certifiably witty people on the planet? “When we do Freestyle meetings, they always have us do an impromptu improv,” says Steingart. “Even though it’s in a safe space, in private, with people that I consider my family, I have heart palpitations. In my wildest dreams, I cannot understand how they do what they do.”
To read more about Steingart and other inspirational grads, check out the NYU Alumni Magazine.