Fox’s live broadcast of the hit musical Rent is coming up, and rehearsals are well under way and designers are working their magic to bring the production to life. As the Sunday, January 27, presentation draws closer, Broadway Direct sat down with production designer Jason Sherwood, who shared with us how he has approached reimagining the scenic elements of Rent for television.
Sherwood is a celebrated designer of stage and screen. In 2017, his work for the Off-Broadway production of The View Upstairs was nominated for Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Awards. Upcoming projects include designing The Spice Girls World Tour 2019 and The People’s Choice Awards. He has an ongoing collaboration with Oscar and Grammy Award winner Sam Smith for his TV appearances and his upcoming world tour, which is Madison Square Garden–bound. He has a vast array of credentials for work in regional theater that include designs at The Old Globe theatre, the New York Theatre Workshop, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre (just to name a few).
Before we get into details about Rent, can you give us some background on your career as a designer?
Scenic design is something that I got involved in when I was in high school. I had a variety of creative interests, which included writing, reading, storytelling, graphic design, and theater. All of these interests came together in the world of theatre design. Growing up just outside New York City in New Jersey, I saw a lot of theater that continued to inspire me. I went to NYU for undergraduate study, where I worked with many talented people who guided and instructed me. From there, I took internships, worked as an associate designer, and then began taking on my own projects.
In your theatergoing experiences, had you seen Rent in New York City, or is the live production your first contact with the show?
I saw Rent several times in New York City and I am a big fan of the show. When I sat down with Michael Grief, Adam Siegel, and Marc Platt to discuss my ideas for the set design for television, I shared with them, from a fan’s point of view, what it is I would want to see in a design for Rent.
Since you were familiar with the show, what are some things that stand out to you about it and that drew you in?
When I first saw the show on Broadway, I sat in the back of the mezzanine. Then I saw it again up close in rush seats. I think those two perspectives stuck with me and ultimately offered a vision on how I saw the show translating to television. That variety of perspectives, from those two different seats, demonstrated how to look at it for the television medium, where cameras film close up and pull back and reveal the whole performance space.
What was the biggest challenge of taking a show that was created for the stage and reimagining it for a live television production?
The key challenge, and the key opportunity, is taking a show that was initially written for a proscenium stage and view it as a 360-degree immersive experience. We tried to develop the piece so that it exploded off of the screen in a 3-D way, while maintaining the life force and vitality it had onstage. For the live production, we also thought about how the show could have the live audience interacting with the piece.
Was there anything in particular you were hoping to capture and/or convey in your design for Rent?
For sure. Rent is essentially a period piece set in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic. There was a lot of darkness, a moodiness and a grit in New York City at the time. It was both intimidating and sexy. I also wanted to capture the quality of the people of the time and have them pop off the set with blazes of color, just like the art, murals, and graffiti that these artists would create. We wanted a contrast between the people and the place. The Life Café is one of the most colorful places in the set design. It’s a safe space, a haven for these people, a bohemian version of the bar from the TV show Cheers, where “everybody knows your name.” We also had to capture the world of Mark and Roger’s apartment: the leftover discarded furniture, posters from Roger’s old gigs, Mark’s moviemaking equipment.
Explain how the sets work in front of a live audience in a television studio: moving to multiple locales, etc. How is this addressed?
I can’t say too much about this one. What I can tell you is that it is going to be very different from other live productions. The set is going to be environmental and immersive, relying more on things coexisting in the same space.
Is there anything you have incorporated in the Rent set that has personal meeting for you? A little Easter egg or something we might not know is there, but you do?
There is. I often incorporate little nods to my family — particularly my mom — like a family photo in a frame or something like that. For Rent, there are a couple. One of them comes on the architectural rendering that Benny reveals of the new building he has planned. On it is printed “Pedra,” which is my Mom’s maiden name. Also, on a pay phone, it says “For a good time, call Cindy,” and the phone number that follows was our old home phone number.
What do you think audiences are going to like most about the live performance of Rent? Assuming you’ve sat in on some rehearsals, what is going to be the biggest thrill for us?
Yes, we are well into rehearsals. I’ve seen it so many times I could probably step in for anyone in the cast. There are many things that are going to be thrilling: the way that we are presenting the story and the first-rate cast who brings a contemporary feeling to the piece while remaining true to its time and place. The show feels like a Broadway musical, a rock concert, and an art installation combined into one. Television audiences are going to feel like they have a front-row seat. And, of course, there is the music, which is a classic score but remains terrific and accessible today.
If you could tackle designing another Broadway musical for a live production, what would it be and why?
I think I’d like to do something original, honestly. Something that is new, that you can grow from your own ideas, that doesn’t require falling back on something we already know or where audiences have certain expectations defined by their past experiences with the piece.
If you were going to offer any advice to young and aspiring designers out there, what would it be? How do they plan a path that best gets them what they need to succeed in the business?
I think the advice I’d offer anyone in this industry is to ask a lot of questions. At points in my life I feel like I have been a nuisance with questions, but the people in this industry are so generous. Identify people who you think are amazing. Be polite and respectful. Ask them if you can chat over a cup of coffee. If you reach out to someone with specific questions, you will be amazed at how helpful many show business people are willing to be.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.