Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Here is a Pride posting drawn from my UW School of Drama course THE BROADWAY MUSICAL: HOW IMMIGRANTS, JEWS, QUEERS, and AFRICAN-AMERICANS INVENTED AMERICA’S SIGNATURE ART FORM.
As we celebrate the 50 Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising we can also celebrate more than 100 years of Pride on Broadway. Most visibly you can trace nearly the entire history of The Broadway Musical through the shows and songs of prolific LGBTQ songwriters Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Noel Coward, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb. Combined they wrote more than 100 shows and thousands of classic songs.
What is less well known is that two LGBTQ women were the dominate forces behind Broadway lighting design:
Jean Rosenthal largely invented what we know today as stage lighting design. In the early days the lighting of a play or musical was handled by the theater’s electrician who tried his best to fulfill the vision of the set designer and director. Rosenthal developed lighting into its own design element and turned a technical craft into an art. Born in 1912 in NYC, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she studied acting and dance, and became a technical assistant to Martha Graham and later took design classes at Yale. Rosenthal didn’t just create the profession, she introduced new technical and artistic tools to the lighting designer’s vocabulary such as saturated color washes of back and side light. Between her first show in 1942 and her death in 1969, Jean Rosenthal designed 85 Broadway shows including West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret.
In the middle of this career Rosenthal became the mentor of another women who would go on to further define the profession -- Tharon Musser. After working a Rosenthal’s assistant she moved into her own stellar career. Between 1956 and 2006, she designed and incredible 122 shows, including A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, and Follies. She also brought groundbreaking technological and artistic contributions to the field. Most notably, in 1975 she became the first designer to use a computerized lighting board on Broadway for A Chorus Line. By 1981 all Broadway shows used one.