The theater world lost a powerhouse last week in Margo Lion. I had the privilege of calling her my first boss, and the sad news of her passing has made me think more than ever about the impact she had on our industry.
Those of us working as female lead producers on Broadway are invariably asked all the time what we think of the new trend of seeing women moving front and center on the Great White Way. Of course, I am always thrilled to see so many of my female peers serving as lead producers. And although there is undeniably a recent normalization of having female producers at the helm, and there are more of us for sure, it is not a new phenomenon.
In 1992 I got my foot in the door as an intern at Jujamcyn. As I got the lay of the land my first week there, I saw that there were only two offices occupied by non-staff members. Rocco Landesman, President of Jujamcyn at the time, had given both of them to independent producers with shows running in Jujamcyn houses.
Both were women.
The office I would settle in was occupied by Margo. She was in the throes of producing Jelly’s Last Jam—a show she had been developing for close to a decade. She was also in the early stages of producing Angels in America. Every day I witnessed in awe as she passionately went to the mat for artists like George C. Wolfe and Tony Kushner, protecting their creative choices and desires. In turn, she was backed up and supported every step of the way by Rocco. I studied the way Margo navigated herself through a male-dominated industry. I never once heard her bemoan the difficulties of being a woman surrounded by men—she was too busy plowing ahead and making art.
It’s worth noting that the second non-staff office at Jujamcyn, was occupied by the whip-smart Elizabeth Williams. She was the lead producer of The Secret Garden and had just won the Tony Award for Crazy for You. I would often hear her on the phone doing business while her young son sat on the floor in front of her desk, coloring. Being a high-powered woman in the workplace and a mother at the same time seemed like the most natural thing in the world when she did it.
Watching women take charge became my “normal.” I realize only in hindsight that I was so very lucky to have been surrounded by such powerful female role models and men who were secure enough to allow them to be badass. It never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t be a strong, vocal part of this industry. It never occurred to me that I didn’t deserve a seat at the table if my ideas were good. I assumed that because Margo had one, why couldn’t I, one day?
Margo championed and encouraged me as I moved on to produce on my own. If you speak to any of the people who got their start with her, they will all tell you the same thing. She was like a prideful mother—the ultimate cheerleader. Margo went on to produce many more shows, her biggest commercial hit being Hairspray, but her passion for the art and advocacy for the artists she believed in remained intact even with her tremendous success.
As a co-founder of Ars Nova, I helped to create a culture where gender identity, sexuality and color have never been an issue. We have an extraordinary number of women in leadership positions, and on the artist side, we continue to nurture women playwrights, composers, lyricists, directors and designers as fairly as we do their male counterparts. I wanted to build an environment that supported the kind of meritocracy I witnessed with Margo.
Despite our many lunches over the last 25 years, I regret that I didn't tell Margo directly that she had led by example and had shown me what was possible. I wish I could tell her now that I will be forever grateful for having had such powerful role model.
All of the women who are lucky enough to be living our dreams by producing professionally are standing on the shoulders of trailblazers like Margo Lion.
Jenny Steingart produces theater, film, and television. Recent productions include Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway, a limited engagement of Sir Patrick Stewart's A Christmas Carol, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, Mean Girls and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. She most recently produced the documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Jenny is the co-founder of Ars Nova, New York City’s premier theater for emerging artists and new work. For 17 years, Ars Nova has launched the careers of such artists as Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Liz Meriwether (New Girl), Billy Eichner, and Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge!) along with Pulitzer Prize winners Annie Baker and Lin-Manuel Miranda.