“She showed me the path,” Ramos says of Sara Steinweiss, who spearheaded the theater program at New Utrecht HS for 13 years. “She’s the angel in my life who believed in me.”
Steinweiss founded New Utrecht’s theater program as a high school senior there in 1994. Six years later, she returned to her alma mater as an English teacher with an unshakable belief in the importance of the arts.
“I grew up with stories about my father, a music teacher at JHS 258 in Bed-Stuy who passed away when I was 5, and who he was as an educator,” she says. “I became a teacher to follow in his footsteps and do what he did for kids.”
Steinweiss nurtured New Utrecht’s after-school theater program as a haven for all students looking for a place to fit in.
“It became the heart and soul of the school,” she says.
In 2008, on a bit of a lark, a star player on the New Utrecht baseball team named Anthony Ramos auditioned for the school’s SING production and immediately caught Steinweiss’ attention.
“He has this angelic voice,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ He said, ‘Nah, I don’t do plays, I do baseball.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re doing plays.’”
At Steinweiss’ urging — “I pretty much didn’t give him a choice,” she says — Ramos was soon juggling baseball practice and a starring role in New Utrecht’s musical.
“I was not the easiest person to wrangle,” says Ramos, who was raised by a single mother in a Bushwick housing project. “I was lost in school, trying to figure it out.”
In his senior year, when his plans to play NCAA baseball in college fell through, Ramos found himself at a crossroads.
“He saw himself going nowhere,” says Steinweiss. “Music was a passion for him, but it was a recreational passion; it wasn’t something he thought he could make a living doing. He needed someone who believed in him to say, ‘You can do this.’”
Steinweiss sat with Ramos and helped him complete his application for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, an intensive two-year performing arts conservatory in Manhattan. When Ramos balked at the $50 application fee, Steinweiss wrote out the check.
Ramos was accepted. But he soon faced another hurdle: the steep cost of tuition. Drawing on a previous connection with a scholarship organization founded by Jerry Seinfeld, Steinweiss made a call and arranged a meeting for Ramos — who was soon awarded a full scholarship and graduated from the program.
At an open casting call, the 23-year-old Ramos was cast in “Hamilton” in the dual role of Revolutionary War soldier John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip — and soon found himself vaulted into Broadway history.
“He allowed me to open doors for him, and he walked through them,” says Steinweiss.
New Utrecht’s theater program opened similar doors for thousands of students during Steinweiss’ decade at the school. But in 2011, during the Bloomberg era, the program was cut for budgetary reasons, leading a discouraged Steinweiss to resign.
“Education got so far away from where it should have been,” she says.
But both Ramos and Steinweiss are cautiously optimistic that — perhaps thanks in some small part to the success of “Hamilton” — arts education is reclaiming its place in New York City public schools.
“This is why arts are so important in the public school system,” an emotional Ramos told the City Council on March 22 as he was presented with a proclamation heralding his success as a public school alumnus. “Sara and the arts truly saved my life.”