BWW Interview: Production Designer Jason Sherwood Talks Inspiration, Hopes for RENT on FOX
Production Designer Jason Sherwood has been tasked to bring the East Village alive in Los Angeles as FOX presents "Rent" this Sunday, January 27 at 8pm EST. The groundbreaking, Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is a re-imagining of Puccini's "La Boheme," and set in New York City's gritty East Village. "Rent" tells the unforgettable story of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams during a time of great social and political turmoil.
BroadwayWorld got the chance to talk to Sherwood about his inspiration, biggest challenges, and hopes for the live musical event!
What does it mean to you to be working on RENT?
Emotionally, it was a formative experience watching that show, and so to get to be a part of it now is sort of very full circle and very much a dream come true.
My particular role on the show is to work with the other members of the creative team to create the visual landscape for the show, and find a language and a grammar in space for how we're going to tell the story. On a Broadway show,nine times out of ten you're on a stage and there's an audience and they're in a fixed position. They watch the show, ad in a live television format, there's a live component, but the majority of the audience is watching it through their television screen, which is a layered experience. So it's about how we create an experience that is transferable through camera onto your television screen that feels like a version of Rent that you have not seen before.
This being your first live musical on television, did you feel like you did anything differently than you normally would designing for strictly theatre or television, or did you pull from your own background?
Yeah, I think a big reason why Michael Greif and Mark Platt wanted to talk to me about this project was because I had a theatre background, and was getting my hands into live TV more, and I had just done a bunch of music, live music stuff with Sam Smith, I did his tour, and his television appearances. And so I think that they sort of wanted a sensibility that was going to be not just the musical, not just the live TV show, not just a concert, but would sort of put those three things into conversation with each other, and we have that across our team.
What do you think were some of the biggest challenges you had designing this show?
The biggest challenge once we established how we were going to tell the story was to make those ideas translate to camera, so every scene has performers in it, has those performers- those performers have to do lifts, they have to be surrounded by something, they're in costumes, then there's a live audience element, there's a live band element, then there's camera. There's so many facets to one of these projects, and all of those different groups of people on the creative team, on the production team, need to be dancing the same dance in order to make it happen seamlessly, beautifully, and really land those big narrative moments.
Rent is a heavy, emotional, and important piece of work, and it needs to be delivered in a legible and exciting, emotional way. It needs to be about how we fall in love with these characters, and the biggest challenge is to make sure an audience at home who's hearing this music for the first time can connect and be there and fall in love with these characters and allow for an intimate viewing experience. I think that's the primary challenge.
When you were drawing inspiration did you draw more from the movie or from the live productions? Or did you decide to go a new direction?
More than looking at the original Broadway production or the film, the time period is so rich in history and so rich in visual information. New York in the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 90s was a place that was DIVIDED in a lot of different ways, but particularly along socioeconomic lines. You have Alphabet City, which is tent cities and squatters and weird performance spaces and lots and a musician and a filmmaker in an abandoned loft at the top of an old music publishing factory that's gonna be leveled and turned into a development. You have these dire environments, but then they're filled with these people who come with these beautiful artistic sensibilities.
They're these bright flashes of color against these darker and more austere environments. Towering scaffolding, and sculptural windows, and so what's been really fun is sort of making the shell of our evocation of New York, which isn't a literal New York, per se, at all. It's an immersive and very environmental take on what it would be like, and building color into it, and almost imagining artists working on top of it. So we havesculptural things made out of bright colored trash, we have a Keith Haring-inspired giant mural that's been graffiti'd all over, so there's a lot of really fun sort of truth and homage to what was really happening at the time. That was our primary inspiration.
The main takeaway and DNA that we've really held onto from the original Broadway production is the sense of theatricality and the sense of spontaneity. Anyone who saw that show on Broadway, any point when it was running, even on a Wednesday matinee ten years in, felt like it was leaping off the stage. It was just kinetic. And we've really sought to capture that same feeling, and I think the space is part of the conduit to make that happen.
How did you take the 1990s and transform it for 2019 and for a younger or new audience who isn't familiar with that period in time?
One of the things I was most excited about outside of the design is that the show is fairly intact, predominantly intact as I remember it and as I've memorized it off the cast recording for so many years. This show is very, very true to the original, and that the modifications that have been made through lots of collaborative work with Michael Greif and Julie Larson, who's an executive producer on the show, and of course ?? Larson- the late Jonathan Larson's sister, have just helped contextualize just a little bit.
There's many a thirteen year old in America who don't understand what AIDS is, or what HIV is, or the difference, or understand that it wasn't part of our reality prior to a certain year. They don't understand the AIDS crisis or what it did in America, and I think that a lot of the work that we're doing in the show and in some of the scenes, particularly around Life Support, is contextualizing what was happening in New York at that time for an audience who may not already have that knowledge, whether they're young or that's just not a part of their universe somehow. I think that we're creating some wonderful period information and locking in the STAKES for these characters. Rent is a life or death story, and it's about people who are living or dying or both, and landing those STAKES are important. A lot of people who come to the show won't necessarily know what was happening in New York in the early 90s, and I think that the small tweaks and changes and augmentations that have been contributed to this version are really gonna help establish that.
That's great, because these live musicals have gotten more successful and popular as they've gone on, and Rent is definitely one of those cultural sensations, so it'll be exciting to see it on TV and see the reaction to new audiences.
Totally, It's interesting, my niece is 12 and she saw Bohemian Rhapsody this year- the film with Rami Malek- and she fell in love with Queen and with Freddie and the music and she'd never heard it before, and I say that if on January 28th she downloads the Rent cast album that we will have succeeded, because it's about invigorating a new generation of people with this message of hope and human connection and acceptance and love, right? And there's a beautiful opportunity here, and we have a pretty strong fighting chance. I'm very protective of what I loved about the original show, and I'm very proud what this is going to be. I think Rentheads will be satisfied in a major way.
That's what's so exciting about a show like this coming to television where everyone can see it. It's not something that isn't accessible, it's right there in their homes, which is one of the best parts of these live musicals.
I think about that a lot: what an overwhelming privilege and responsibility it is to bring this to a medium where it can be viewed by people who don't have the ability to ever see a Broadway show, which is a privilege that for a long time I took for granted growing up outside the city, and then going to school in the city and being a working designer in the city, how often I see shows, and what a huge impact that's had on my life, and how I've built my community- my chosen families- and, Rent is about all of those things. Rent was the first time I ever saw two gay people sing a love song to each other, and I was like, 'I didn't know that gay people could sing love songs to each other,' and then as a gay person myself, it creates this opportunity for you to live and grow into your authentic self, and I think that's why it's been so important to young people and generations older than this one, because it relates to a very, very particular experience. We lost an entire generation of people, an entire generation of gay men to the AIDS crisis, and, it leaves this void culturally, artistically, and the way that that's felt, and the way that you tell that story again 20 years later is powerful and full of meaning.
Kaitlin: So,the show is Sunday, and without giving anything away, are there any surprises or things to pay attention; things you're most excited about?
Yeah, there are a bunch of fun visual surprises. There's a really fun surprise in the first two minutes of the show that I think is gonna be a lot of fun for everyone to experience. There are really fun staging moments that people aren't expecting. I think that it will be most kinetic and live version of Rent you can imagine, because it's as if you're alone at the Nederlander Theater in 1996 and you're able to walk and move around anywhere and people can pass through you, so you never get in the way. It has this omniscient, beautiful, 360, immersive vantage point, and I think that that's going to feel very thrilling, to be so close to these characters, and understand the scale of the environment and the world they live in.
What are you hoping fans take away from watching this production on Sunday night?
I think a lot about the way that communities come together to support each other, and I think the theatre community- particularly around these live musicals- can be kind of harsh, and what I'm hoping is that the message of this storyl the music, the beautiful, new way these actors are living in these parts, and the way we're presenting the show is going to disarm everyone from that snarkiness. There will always be snark, but I think the way I'll feel like we've succeeded as storytellers is if people come together and band around this story the way that they used to. The world and particularly the American government are divisive right now, and we need acts of empathy making that bring us together.
I think the act of live theatre, of live performance, of storytelling, is an act of empathy-making and I hope that we will bring people together in a major community way through this story, because it has a lot to say to each us about how to treat each other and I hope that people are moved by it in the way that I'm moved by it, that I've always been moved by it since I ever heard the music.
I hope that it's meaningful to people, because it's meaningful to us.