According to Beverly Emmons, who has designed more than 30 Broadway shows.
Emmons says that in the 1940s Jean Rosenthal elevated lighting design from one of the scenic designer’s responsibilities to its own entity. Before there was a specialist known as a lighting designer, Emmons says, “electricians would have an instinct for the aesthetic ideas; they would arrange some lights; and the director would comment, or the scenic designer would take a hand in it.”
In the early part of the 20th century, the lighting designer was not a formalized position. Rather the set designer or electrician handled the lighting of a production. Rosenthal helped make the lighting designer an integral member of the design team. She also said that lighting “was a career in itself”. As well as particular lighting innovations, she created an atmosphere specific to the production, and she was in demand as a Broadway lighting designer.
In 1929, she was introduced to Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She became Graham’s technical assistant, which led to a lifelong collaboration with Graham. She worked with Graham on 36 productions. Rosenthal studied lighting design at the Yale School of Drama from 1931 to 1934 with Stanley McCandless.
She returned to New York City, where she joined the Federal Theatre Project in 1935. This led to collaborations with Orson Welles and John Houseman. She would later follow Welles to the Mercury Theatre, where she was credited as a member of the board in addition to production and lighting manager, although not as lighting designer.
Some of her major contributions were the elimination of shadows by using floods of upstage lighting and controlling angles and mass of illumination to create contrasts without shadows. “Some of the signature lighting she did for Balanchine and the diagonal shaft of light she created for Graham (lovingly referred to by her as “Martha’s Finger of God”), are now in such widespread use by dance companies of every style that they have become standards of the lighting repertoire.”
She was light designer for hundreds of productions, including Broadway, Martha Graham‘s dances, the New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera. On Broadway she lit musicals such as West Side Story (1957), The Sound of Music (1959), Take Me Along (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Cabaret (1966), and The Happy Time (1968).