Production designer Jason Sherwood was about 14 when he first saw Rent on Broadway. Fifteen years later, Sherwood, collaborating with Rent director Michael Greif, created an entirely new vision of the Jonathan Larson musical for a brand new medium.
His experiences in the orchestra and the mezzanine of the Broadway house “was the TV equivalent of a close up and a wide shot,” says Sherwood. That inspired his massive open concept warehouse design for January’s Rent on Fox. “We got to do all of those things at a single given time on TV, and I wanted to sort of capture the energy of both vantage points.”
“We wanted to feel like the show sort of popped up inside of the warehouse, the way it would have diegetically in the East Village and the Alphabet City in the ’90s,” he continues. Sherwood combined his full arsenal of experience (world concert tours for the likes of the Spice Girls and Sara Bareilles, Disney’s latest cruise ship iteration of Beauty and the Beast, as well as Off-Broadway and regional theatre) to create his Rent aesthetic.
From homages to the original Broadway production to personal Easter eggs, Sherwood reveals 16 never-before-heard secrets of the Rent on Fox set.
1. Sherwood’s set was its own mini Alphabet City.
“The room was like a big neighborhood. We literally labeled the stages and the passerelles by street name, so there was Avenue A, Avenue B, and East 4th Street, and that’s what connected the different islands [of space].”
2. The live audience could watch faraway scenes on carefully positioned monitors at-home audiences wouldn’t see.
“There were 1,100 people who watched the show live in the room, and then there were a handful of million people who watched the show at home, so the priority on a television show is always the folks who watch it at home. People in the room get an experience that’s unique because of what it is.”
3. Sherwood’s design had to take into account places for quick changes, costumes areas, “backstage,” and paths for camera operators all to be invisible.
“It’s easier on a show where you say, ‘Here’s the perfect little house that goes in the corner and everything that’s not in the corner can just be a mess,’ but in our case, we used every square inch of that studio so we have to be very thoughtful in the planning.”
4. The creative team used 3D models to plot out every single shot of the show.
5. Mimi really explored the city during “Out Tonight.”
“[Tinashe] traveled over 150 feet of scaffolding in that song while singing her butt off.”
6. Sherwood specifically chose an industrial color palette for his design.
“New York at that time—or even the world we live in today—is a dark and gray and industrial place. If you looked at the set in fluorescent lighting, it was a lot of scaffolding, metal work, sidewalk, curves, it had this very dark and imposing or foreboding sense."
7. But he contrasted that intentional dinginess with pops of color—and the whole Life Café scene—to demonstrate the vibrancy of Rent’s characters as artists.
“When you really go full tilt on color is when we get to the Life Café. I wanted that space to feel a little safe enclave like this little, warm, family—like their version of Cheers. It’s their bohemian Cheers and they have brought party decorations for the last 25 events that are all still hanging there. It has this very warm and inviting sense.”
8. Angel’s Christmas tree was green—in two ways.
“That piece was fabricated with entirely recycled materials and then all of those materials were returned to be recycled. We actually had to sign an agreement that we would return all of those bottles.”
9. Sherwood intentionally elevated the Life Support scenes.
“The only ‘location’ that wasn’t dipped down and immersed into the audience members was what we called the hall where Life Support was, where Angel’s memorial was. Those things are very sacred to the people referenced in those songs. They were people that Jonathan and his friends knew, and those places exist in the memory of people like Michael [Greif] and people who lived in New York at the time of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and the ’90s in a very distinct way, so that space is protected. We wanted there to be this private moment and let the gravity of that land on its own. A lot of people watching—especially young people—know very little about what happened in New York and other major cities in America and all over the world during that time, so we wanted that to land and have a certain gravity.”
10. The designer layered his vision with irreplaceable history.
“In the Life Support scene, there’s the iconic ‘Silence = Death’ poster that Keith Haring created in the age of Act Up and the AIDS crisis. We really wanted that space to feel particular. We worked really hard with the estate to be able to have the rights to use that image on television.”
11. Angel’s memorial service featured a real-life memorial wall.
“The wall of candles, that was a meaningful memorial idea for a lot of people who worked on the show. A lot of folks who worked on the show know people and honor people who passed away during the AIDS crisis. It was meaningful to write notes and to put them on that wall and as a team, make something that felt like we could honor the entire interest and integrity of this piece, the people that Jonathan was writing about, the people that so many of the people in our community, the theatre community and the New York community at large lost and miss.”
12. Sherwood sprinkled nods to Jonathan Larson in multiple spaces.
“On the phone booth, there were posters for Superbia, one of Jonathan’s other musicals, there was a sticker for the Moondance Diner, where Jonathan worked.”
13. Rent on Fox would not have been complete without homages to the original.
“Some original costume pieces were in the ‘Christmas Bells’ scene when they’re shopping for coats for Collins. The street vendor pulls Mark’s sweater off the rack, the sweater that Mark wore on Broadway. Mimi’s blue pants, those skintight blue pants, the original pair were hanging on a rack in her house.”
14. Sherwood minimized waste wherever he could—both as an act of consciousness and of storytelling.
“There were hundreds of industrial windows in the show and a lot of them were reclaimed that we found in salvage yards, we rented and returned, there was not a lot of custom build on the show. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet of scaffolding that we rented and sent back. The staging was all rented and sent back. There wasn’t a giant footprint on that show from a waste perspective. That felt at the heart of the New York art community anyway—people just using what they had on hand to make something that would be beautiful.”
15. The designer ensured Mark and Roger’s loft felt a bit like Larson’s.
“In the loft, there were several pieces of notes and music that Jonathan had written: the original notes for ‘Seasons of Love’ where he was doing the math and figuring out the language around months and days and hours in a year, along with the original charts for ‘One Song Glory.’”
16. Sherwood left his own tribute to those he loves.
“There were several personal inclusions. It says, ‘For a good time call Cindy’ on the phone booth—Cindy is my mom, so she hated that, of course. Above Mark and Roger on the subway window at the end of ‘What You Own’ it says Marie, which is my grandmother’s name.”