The production designer reveals just how much of a Rent fanatic he truly is, and how he wanted to contribute to Jonathan Larson’s legendary musical opus.
Jason Sherwood loves Rent, and he isn’t afraid to shout his devotion from the rooftops. He may even declare his love of Jonathan Larson’s musical from the highest peak of his very own design of FOX’s Rent: Live. You have never seen Rent designed like this before, and I can confidently say that this design is easily my favorite of any live musical we’ve had since this televised musical renaissance began. Sherwood’s design is gritty, colorful, and, most importantly, dripping with heart.
Before there was Dear Evan Hansen and before Hamilton had people spilling into the streets to get a glimpse of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rent exploded on Broadway in 1996. I remember my high school drama teacher being scandalized by its true depiction of people living with HIV in New York City and its in your face lyrics. One of my former roommates was obsessed with Maureen’s “Over the Moon” and Idina Menzel way before she painted herself green or let it go. If you love Broadway or musicals, you have a connection with Rent, and Sherwood is no exception.
To create the world of New York City, Sherwood had to design an immense space and leave no nook untouched. When the camera is swirling around and the audience is cheering you truly get a sense of how massive this thing is. It looks like he took an entire city block and stuffed every street and skyscraper into it. Spaces emerge as if from nowhere and the color pops loudly in your face.
The true heart behind Rent was something that Sherwood wanted to capture. Since we have some distance from its original incarnation, there have been massive strides made in the fight against HIV and AIDS and New York City isn’t the same as if was then. Sherwood’s design, however, captures that time so effortlessly. It’s bold and intricately created. The scale and scope of it, as well as Sherwood’s respect for the original show and its characters, make him a deserving candidate this awards season.
How much of a Rent Head are you?
A pretty big one. They all made fun of me, in a kind way. It was a big part of my interest in the project from the jump. I had seen the show a bunch of times as a teenager and I really loved it. It was two gay people singing a love song to each other and talks about chosen families and there was a lot in it that I fell in love with as many, many people did. I knew the show forwards and backwards. I knew every word, so I was a pretty big fan. I think it was useful in understanding what the expectation would be and what I would want to see as an audience member and translate that through the lens of our production.
The set is so huge. It feels like you built a mini New York City but contained in one city block. Did you want to make it feel like a whole city in a small space?
The word we kept coming back to was community. I knew right off the bat that I wanted to the show to be 360 and immersive. I wanted the audience to be very present. We started talking about islands of space connected by different runways and, with that, it started to feel like city blocks. Certain stage areas had names. We had Avenue A and Avenue B so there was literally connection point between the Life Café and the loft and the exteriors and the hall where “Life Support” takes place. We named them by city streets.
That’s so cool. It gives you a sense of the city.
There was absolutely the sense that you were amongst a community of spaces in like a little neighborhood. You can feel that in the wide shots of the show that there’s that sense of being above it and getting how one space relates to one another and being in close proximity to one another. I’m glad you picked up on that!
Obviously Rent deals with a lot of serious themes and features a lot of dark moments, but there is a lot of joy. When you get to incorporate a lot of color into the show, did you want to take the opportunity to run with that?
The thing I say about the world of the show is that it’s a really industrial and oppressive world–New York City in the early 90’s–but it’s populated by a lot of artists and people that are creative. They bring with them color in the costume and everything they make. Maureen’s stage is glittery with a canopy of bottles, and she’s made this tacky curtain out of this purple, silky scrim. She’s made this paper mache moon and Angel’s made this Christmas tree out of bottles to celebrate Christmas. When you get to a moment where you can show the influence of the people on the stage, you absolutely take it. The best example of that is the Life Café which is basically this shitty Village café space that they’ve created a home away from home for themselves.
And in Angel’s funeral did you purposely make all the candles red to symbolize the AIDS crisis? When I first saw it, it reminded me of those ribbons celebrities would wear to awards shows in the 90’s—the iconic red ribbon.
Oh yeah. This story being an iconic, huge piece of American work about the AIDS crisis, we considered a lot of details around that. There are notes and photographs to real people in that wall.
When we’re in that space for the “Life Support” sequence, we go passed the iconic Keith Haring ‘Silence=Death’ poster that we fought really hard to get that cleared for the show. Michael Greif, who directed the show originally, he lived this experience. For myself, as a 29 year old gay man, this experience is important for me to understand as a person and to understand as a New Yorker. Making sure we honored those people and what happened to them and the ongoing fight and the research for a cure is a huge part of what we talked about on an everyday basis. How do we make this feel as authentic as it can possibly feel. How do we protect and honor the memory of the people. The hall where Angel’s memorial and the “Life Support” scenes takes place is the only space in the design that’s elevated away from the audience. You don’t see the audience behind those scenes, because we wanted to protect every part of that visual.
Even though I sort of grew up with the show, it does kind of feel like a period piece—a very current one. While research on HIV/AIDS has come a long way, it’s important to keep in mind how it has affected the LGBTQIA community.
Absolutely. It is a period piece, but it couldn’t feel more relevant. A community of people is being oppressed and disenfranchised for who they are and that’s as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
Was it tricky to incorporate the paths for the cameras to move around the set?
The thing that was really unique was that all the playing spaces where they actors performed were about 6 feet off the ground of the studio floor. They were walking on stages and catwalks that were elevated off the ground. We filled in the areas around with mosh pits of people, but they were essentially walking on places where they could easily fall off (laughs). I think the main thing is that we were blessed to have Alex Rudzinski as our television director, and Alex is brilliant.
Yeah, he’s amazing.
He has the knowledge and the wherewithal on how to execute to bring that life. It was a really intense collaboration between him and I and Michael Greif and our producers Marc Platt and Adam Siegel as well as our lighting designer, Al Gurdon, because at any given moment we’d have actors moving in a particular way given what the audience was doing. It’s not an easy story to tell period. There are many characters, there’s a lot of emotion, you go to commercial every 12 minutes and you lose momentum. There’s a lot to figure out. One that particularly comes to mind is the “Will I?” sequence because we follow Jordan Fisher through the space in one uninterrupted Steadicam shot. It required beautiful work from our Steadicam operator, but it required a lot of coordination so you’d see what we wanted you to see. We didn’t want to catch someone in a costume change or see another cameraman moving to another position.
With the live musicals, it’s been exciting to see how they’ve evolved. We started with them filming just on a stage, and now they’re massive. I feel like you guys really knock it out of the park in terms of scope.
Well, thank you.
Can you tell me about any unconventional materials that you incorporated into the set.
Certainly. We did use every inch of that space, so it had to be designed. Normally, you’d spend a certain amount of money to design half a room and the other half would be camera tech and storage and all that. We had to spread that across two times the amount of real estate. We looked to recycled materials to fill that void. Angel’s tree is made of 100% recycled materials—except for some casters that wheeled it around. Many of those pieces had to be extra dexterous because it had to break down into 3 pieces so it could be broken down and get out of the way for another shot. The loft window above Mark and Roger’s apartment is made of a series of reclaimed windows, as are the windows that fly around Mimi’s apartment. We found them in junkyards and salvage yards. Maureen’s stage is made of a bunch of palette wood. We really got into wanting the authenticity of something that was built and collaged from found materials.
The tree feels almost Dr. Seuss like. I loved that.
You do a lot of theater, and I noticed that a lot of work includes a sort of circular imagery. There’s a turntable in Rent, right?
Yes, there’s a turntable that spins.
Are you drawn to that particular shape or is that purely a coincidence?
In general, I try to serve the story and support the story. I make fun of myself that my show look like big, dumb shapes.
I mean it in a good way! I feel like there’s a lot of meaning in geometry. I’m interested in how the geometry of a space engages the audience to be closer to the work or further from the work. I’m always interested in how a design changes itself throughout. That’s something we wanted to incorporate into “La Vie Boheme” where you have the iconic image of the tables in a line like it’s done on Broadway. And then take those tables and put them in a circle and then really subvert the expectation of this big, wild party and then make the room spin. It was less about coming at it with a certain application but more about taking that number and serve up what people would want but make it 360 in the vein of our production.
If you were to bring another musical to television in an immersive experience, what would it be?
I definitely wouldn’t. I don’t like to do the same thing twice if I can help it. I would work on a musical project for television, but I don’t think I’d go about it in the same way. If someone called me and said they were doing Godspell or Spring Awakening for television, it’d have to be a project that would challenge me to view the medium in a different way. I have spent a lot of time, like so many people, watching these live musicals, and then I had the opportunity to make one and it happened to be a show I’ve loved my entire life. I’m not really sure how I could top that in my own personal experience.
Sounds like this was a dream opportunity for you. Everything lined up so well for you to put a lot of passion into it.