‘Lighting by Jean Rosenthal’

Original Broadway artist has roots on Martha’s Vineyard.

Jean Rosenthal was one of the first light designers in the world. — From "The Magic of Light"

A collection of original Broadway posters line the walls of a weathered West Tisbury studio. John Gielgud’s “Hamlet” hangs next to Harold Prince’s “Cabaret,” beside Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story,” to name a few. Each poster boasts its own simple, timeless design, centered around a rotating cast of heavy-hitting names. But one small credit line reads the same across each and every poster: “Lighting by Jean Rosenthal.”

Jean Rosenthal is considered a pioneer in the field of light design — illuminating stages across Broadway, the Mercury Theater, and the New York City Ballet, among others, from 1928, at the age of 26, to the time of her death in 1969. 

“I am a lighting designer. The profession is only as old as the years I have spent in it,” writes Rosenthal in her 251-page memoir ‘The Magic of Light,’ lent to The Times by Rosenthal’s niece and longtime Islander Sara Rosenthal. 

“She was the lighting person on Broadway,” Sara told The Times. “She was the one everyone sought out.” 

Jean Rosenthal was born in 1912 in New York City. Both her parents were physicians. She had two brothers. “As a child, I saw every play that opened,” Rosenthal wrote. “The opera and symphony were part of my weekly routine.”

Rosenthal knew she had a useful way of seeing things, and attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in 1929, where she met Martha Graham — a dancer and choreographer who reshaped American dance, and whose technique is still taught worldwide. Rosenthal became Graham’s technical assistant, which fostered a lifelong relationship. She left the Neighborhood Playhouse after a year and a half, and attended Yale School of Drama from 1931 to 1934. She met George Baker, John Gielgud, Donald Oenslager, John Houseman, Orson Welles, and Katharine Cornell, linking Rosenthal to a number of productions and renowned artists that would accompany her career in the field of light design. 

“I’ll tell you one thing my aunt always said,” Sara Rosenthal said. “The most successful and brilliant work a lighting designer does is usually the least noticeable.” 

Sara grew up 30 miles outside New York City — always plugged into her aunt’s work. “It really instilled a great love for the theater,” Sara said. She recalls seeing Maria Tallchief — American’s first major prima ballerina — backstage at age 10. She recalls annual suite tickets to “The Nutcracker,” and a high school class trip to see “Hamlet” on Broadway.

“You couldn’t get those tickets,” Sara said. “My aunt got my whole high school English class a ticket to that show.” Sara remembers some of her aunt’s proudest moments. 

“There’s this scene in ‘West Side Story’ — a fight under a bridge,” Sara said. “It’s not always done the same, show to show, but when it was put on Broadway for the first time, my aunt said she was most proud of the light in that scene. She thought it was most effective.” 

Sara lives in West Tisbury with her partner Julie Prazich. Her aunt’s posters are proudly showcased in the detached studio space, shared with Prazich’s monoprints and fused glass art gallery. The Rosenthals have a long history in West Tisbury, and started coming here in 1947. “There was a time in the early ’60s where they used to call it West Rosenthal,” Sara laughed. “My father had a house near the Field Gallery. My grandparents had the house next to the gas station. And then my aunt eventually bought a house on Music Street.” 

Sara said most of her family has passed away since, but they shared a longtime love for the Island and its arts. In Jean Rosenthal’s memoir, she writes, “I love Martha’s Vineyard and insist, as all its dwellers do, that its air is the softest and its light the most delicate in the world. I walk the Island’s undulating roads and through the low-growing woods and on the sand or pebble beaches with pride of ownership.”

Rosenthal, a child of the city, writes about finding a love for nature later in life: “For the first time on the Vineyard, I have had the time to consider and sum up my lifetime in light.” 

Rosenthal was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died at 57, at the height of her career. That’s about when she moved to the Island full-time. “She loved it here,” Sara said. 

Jean Rosenthal was one of the most in-demand professionals in the world, with roots right under our noses. She and her two brothers were artists. Jean didn’t have children, but her brother’s kids, Sara included, would go on to be physicians. “It skipped a generation,” Sara said. “My aunt was the artistic generation. But it was all right-brain stuff.” 

Sara and Julie are both retired physicians now, and split their time between Martha’s Vineyard and San Diego, where they both practiced. They share a love for the theater, often attending shows at Broadway San Diego as well as the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. “They do a really nice job,” Sara said of the Playhouse. 

“They’re so creative in a small space,” Prazich added. “It’s always exciting to go.” 

Sara feels tight ties to the theater and to one of Broadway’s light design pioneers. “It’s a piece of history,” Sara said. “These shows that are put on over and over again, and my aunt did the first one. It holds on to you. It becomes a piece of you. I wish she were here now.”