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Women's History Month Part 3: Jean Rosenthal

Published: March 22, 2021

An award-winning artist who crafted a new profession in technical theater.

West Side Story Still

Theater is a collaborative discipline; triple-threat stars may take center stage but blockbuster musicals are a team effort of the playwright, director, choreographer, composer, and those who design the sets, costumes and lighting plot.  These male-dominated off-stage roles rarely provided women an apprenticeship, the main avenue to advance in a field laden with heavy investment and high risk.  Yet, those who broke the barrier raised their profession to new heights.  Such is the work of lighting designer, Jean Rosenthal.

Rosenthal 1The best evidence of Rosenthal’s contribution is a partial list of her Broadway credits –

West Side Story (1957)
The Sound of Music (1959)
Barefoot in the Park (1963)
Hello Dolly! (1964)
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
The Odd Couple (1965)
Cabaret (1966)

Born Eugenia Rosenthal on March 16, 1912 in New York City, she was the daughter of two Romanian immigrants, both practicing physicians.  When poor grades prevented entry into a prestigious college, Rosenthal opted to study dance and drama eventually gaining a position as a technical assistant and instructor with the Martha Graham Dance Company.  By 1930, she was attending Yale studying theatre history, scene design, costume design, and lighting design.

Before adding Broadway to her portfolio, Rosenthal worked with producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre where she got her first lighting credit by chance, jumping in when the electrical technical director was out sick.   

Rosenthal 2Theater historian Shoshanna Greenberg noted, “Jean Rosenthal was a lighting designer before there were lighting designers. When she began lighting shows, the lighting design was usually handled by either the scenic designer or the master electrician—and in the beginning, she was thought of as an ‘electrician with notions’—but she made lighting design into what it is today: a profession.”

Her clients included Angela Lansbury, Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Mary Martin and George Balanchine.  Inspired by the paintings of Rembrandt and Monet, Rosenthal mastered the technical and poetic aspects of stage lighting.  Rosenthal explained, “Light is quite tactile to me. It has shape and dimension.”

She later started her own design firm, providing services to architectural projects such as the iconic Pan-Am terminal at New York’s JFK Airport, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Juilliard School of Music, and the LA Music Center’s Dorothy B. Chandler Pavilion.

Rosenthal 3
Photo: L-R Jean Rosenthal, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Irene Sharaff, Sylvia Drulie, Robert E Griffith.  Rehearsal of West Side Story (credit: Martha Swope 1957)

In 1968 while hospitalized for terminal cancer, Rosenthal completed The Magic of Light, a career memoir in which she shares her technical expertise with those who would follow.  It was published posthumously.   Even after her death at the age of 57, her lights burned brightly for three more years in Fiddler on the Roof, which closed in 1972.

The Magic of Light (1972) Rosenthal, Jean

Lighting Martha: A One-Act Play About Jean Rosenthal (2019) Gage, Carolyn

Sources include Broadway World, The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary, Jewish Women’s Archive, and TheIntervalNY.com