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NY Public Library for the Performing Arts Assistant Curator Annemarie van Roessel on the Designs of Jo Mielziner


BroadwayWorld continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Annemarie van Roessel, Assistant Curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division on: The Designs of Jo Mielziner.

NY Public Library for the Performing Arts Assistant Curator Annemarie van Roessel on the Designs of Jo Mielziner

Brush, pencil, India ink, watercolor, gouache, wove paper, tracing paper, watercolor paper, illustration board. Line, wash, perspective, texture, shadow, light, color.

All these come together in the masterwork of Jo Mielziner (1901-1976), one of the most celebrated and prolific set, costume, and lighting designers of the 20th century. Mielziner's vision gave three-dimensional life to the original productions of such masterpieces as 1776, Allegro, Annie Get Your Gun, The Baker's Wife, Carousel, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, Do I Hear a Waltz, Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, The King and I, The Little Show, Pal Joey, South Pacific, and A Streetcar Named Desire, among many others. All told, Mielziner designed for more than 300 productions, primarily on Broadway. For his iconic work, Mielziner received 12 Tony nominations, winning the award seven times.

The range of playwrights, composers, directors, choreographers, and producers who worked with Mielziner is also a who's who of the American stage: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Tennessee Williams, Elmer Rice, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Guthrie McClintic, Maxwell Anderson, Howard Dietz, Joshua Logan, Arthur Schwartz, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, George S. Kaufman, and Moss Hart. Indeed, in a letter that Kazan wrote in 1949, he noted that "If someone asked me to define Theatre in a very few words, the first one that would come out is Mielziner."

The Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts acquired Mielziner's own vast archive of designs and papers in 1976 and has recently added two extraordinary groups of his work as collected by several other major figures in the New York theatre community--the Tony award-winning lighting designer Jules Fisher and Mielziner's frequent collaborator Richard Rodgers, through a bequest from his daughter Mary Rodgers Guettel. Selections from these two new gifts--designs for eleven shows, ranging in date from 1934 to 1975--are currently on view for the very first time at The Library for the Performing Arts on the third floor.

For generations of designers and historians, Mielziner has been seen as an artist's artist, superbly deft at conveying theatrical narrative and all its energy, pathos, fear, and joy through the seemingly simple act of placing color on a two-dimensional surface. While most set design is judged by its translation to a physical stage, the artwork on which it is based deserves close attention as well. For Mielziner, these two aspects were never far apart.

The designs in the Fisher and Rodgers gifts range from quick preliminary sketches, such as the small studies for the house set from Death of a Salesman (1949), to the highly detailed and richly colored design on high-quality illustration board for the Seebees camp in South Pacific (1949), which displays his typical technique of laying down the outlines of figures and placement in delicate pencil and ink, then layering over with watercolors and gouache (opaque watercolor) to give more definition. Mielziner was also very fond of using large swaths of grey ink wash or vivid watercolor to convey atmosphere--either to mysterious, chilled effect as in the Hudson River landscape for High Tor (1937), or to buoyant effect as in the design for the café scene in The Baker's Wife (1976). In his designs for Guys and Dolls (1950), Mielziner turned to transparent tracing paper and vibrant colored pencil to convey the riot of activity and movement in the nightclub and in Times Square. Although Mielziner's artistic signature is recognizable across these designs, he won high praise from his collaborators for his ability to approach each project with a fresh eye.

We invite you to come to The Library for the Performing Arts to spend time enjoying the brushstrokes, the texture of the paper, the depth of color, the imagination and talent of Jo Mielziner in person. Or you can browse our Digital Collections to see more examples of Mielziner's work.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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