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Repertory Archive

Jean Rosenthal


Jean Rosenthal, lighting designer for more than 200 shows, was born in 1908.  Her mother, Dr. Pauline Rosenthal, a psychiatrist, and her father, Dr. Morris Rosenthal, an ear, nose and throat specialist, were Rumanians who migrated to New York in 1912. She began school in Pauling, New York and subsequently went to the Friends Seminary in Manhattan.  She began her theatrical work at the Neighborhood Playhouse, attending to staging details for Martha Graham.  She then went to the Yale School of Drama and studied lighting with Stanley McCandies and to the Parsons School of Design.  In 1935, she embarked on a professional career as stage manager, production supervisor and general runner of errands for the W.P.A. Theater Project.

In 1937 she began her association with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.  Three years later she founded Theater Production Service, Inc., a centralized buying and rental service for theatre equipment and supplies.

She served as lighting consultant for the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, the Juilliard School of Music, the Los Angeles Music Center’s Memorial Pavilion and Center Theater, the Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University and the University High School Theater of Bloomington, Indiana.

She performed this work besides her service for New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Jerome Robbins’ Ballets: USA, the Phoenix Theater, and Broadway.

In 1967 she became the Metropolitan Opera House’s first lighting designer.  She directed the lighting for the Met’s productions of Romeo and Juliet, Hansel and Gretel, Carmen, and Luisa Miller.

Her Broadway credits include Illya Darling, I Do! I Do!, West Side Story, Incident at Vichey, LuvThe Odd Couple, and Barefoot in the Park.

She scored what she regarded as her more aesthetic successes in the “institutional” theatre — ballet opera, and repertory — which allowed her a more leisurely experimentation that was not possible on Broadway.

Among these triumphs were the stark, eerie, mud-colored lighting for Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Medium, the lighting for New York City Ballet’s Afternoon of a Faun and The Nutcracker, and for the dramatic lighting for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart.  Although she was gratified by the praise of professional critics in the theatre and ballet, she tended to shy away from public notice.  She once said she was overcome by a feeling of failure when people noticed her lighting.

Her deepest satisfaction came when audiences and critics were impressed by the “atmosphere” she had created.  This, she felt, proved that her role had been useful and unobtrusive.  “I like to think of myself as some of the Scotch tape that holds things together,” she said.  “I’m very handy to have around.  But all the actors really need is a bare stage.  Lighting is just one of the luxuries of the theatre.”  Despite her self-effacement Miss Rosenthal gained a wide reputation as a unique artist who magically painted the stage with light.  Some directors were known to have postponed productions in order to use her.  Performers left the lighting of their faces and figures to her with complete confidence.  Theatre associates talked admiringly of her “cyclorama blues” and “color washes” and instructors who teach lighting in drama schools have analyzed her methods in textbooks.

One of Rosenthal’s major contributions was the elimination of stage shadows by resorting to rich floods of upstage lighting.  The technique was unheard of until she put it to use.  Also, her mass uses of illumination thrown from all directions and controlled by variations in intensity and color created impressions of light and shade on a stage that contained no shadows.

Jean Rosenthal died in New York City on May 1, 1969, aged 57.

Source: The New York Times obituary, May 2, 1969