Jean Rosenthal – First Lady of Lighting

“I like to think of myself as some of the Scotch tape that holds things together – I’m very handy to have around.  But all that actors really need is a bare stage.  Lighting is just one of the luxuries of the theater.” – Jean Rosenthal

I found the above quote in The New York Times obituary for Jean dated May 2, 1969.  The quote shows what a humble person she was and the obituary notes that she would feel like a failure when her lighting designs garnered too much attention.  The obituary also points out, however, that directors were willing to delay productions until she was available and actors trusted her completely with making them look good.   The high esteem her colleagues had for her was shared by critics and audiences alike.

Rosenthal’s career and work was incredibly rich and varied.  Her association with Martha Graham began in 1929 when she was just a student and their collaborations continued until Jean’s death in 1969.  Rosenthal also did lighting for the Mercury Theater, the New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins, the Metropolitan Opera, and hundreds of Broadway plays and musicals as well as serving as a consultant on the construction of numerous building projects such as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, and the Los Angeles Memorial Pavilion to name a few.

The WCFTR first contacted Jean in December 1960 with the proposal to have her establish a collection of her material in Madison.  She considered the offer and became quite enthusiastic about the idea.  The first boxes of material from Jean arrived in February 1963 – delayed in part because of her busy schedule but also because she insisted on organizing her papers before she sent them; the original collection of material was kept in the order in which she arranged them.  More material would follow in June 1965 and December 1966.  The collection contains documentation for productions between 1941 and 1966.  Included are lighting plots, set designs, costume fabric swatches, prop lists, board hookups, gel samples, photographs, cue sheets and much more.  Whether she knew it or not, Jean was a wonderful archivist.

One of the great things about the WCFTR’s collections is how many of the collections are related to one another.  For instance, Jean did the lighting design for the play The Great Sebastians in 1955.

Jean Rosenthal Papers, Box 4 Folder 5
Jean Rosenthal Papers, Box 4 Folder 5

Not only can a scholar study how the technical side of the production was designed, you can see how the script for the play evolved in the Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse Papers as well as read correspondence between the authors and the stars of the play Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne whose personal papers also reside at the WCFTR.  Rosenthal also designed the lighting for The Sound of Music (1959) which was written by Lindsay and Crouse, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) which is well documented in the Stephen Sondheim Papers.