Long before Jason Sherwood was asked to design the set for Fox’s upcoming “Rent: Live,” he was a fan of the show. He saw “Rent” on Broadway twice; once from the back of the mezzanine and once in the front row as a recipient of a $20 rush ticket. Both times he was “blown away by the energy exploding off the stage” and touched by the boundary-pushing musical. “As a gay person, this was the first show I'd ever seen where two people of the same sex sang a love song to each other,” he remembered, “That visibility and that kind of storytelling was handled so beautifully and so effortlessly.”
When, in early summer, producer Marc Platt and director Michael Grief asked Jason to join the creative team of Fox’s next live musical, he knew this was “a dream come true” and a culmination of his career. Jason has worked on plays and musicals across the country – including his Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominated work on Off-Broadway’s “The View Upstairs” – and has designed musical performances on “SNL” and other TV shows. He was the lead designer for Sam Smith’s world tour. All those influences, from stage to arena, from collaborator to fan, make “Rent” the perfect project for him.
From the get-go, Jason knew this incarnation of “Rent” needed to be both a reinvention and an homage to the original production, which opened on Broadway in 1996. Having the show’s original director, Michael Grief, at the helm made that clear. “Michael was always keeping his eye on the past while also looking forward at the same time,” Jason said during a phone conversation on break from teching the show in LA, “we are figuring out a way to honor the show’s DNA and what people would expect and want but then bring a contemporary sensibility to it.”
One way of doing that is to really explore the locations of “Rent” in a way you can’t on a typical proscenium stage. “In our imagining of the show, there's no space that we don't visit with camera. The way that we are going to tell this story is going to feel very intimate and very expansive at the same time.” You’ll see the grittiness of the tent cities and Mark’s dim apartment but also the “space spaces the characters create for themselves” like the Life Café, a place “full of lights and murals and graffiti installations.”
While Jason was appropriately tight-lipped about specifics of this high-profile production, he did mention that Angel’s iconic Christmas tree is getting a fresh, new makeover.
This production will utilize Jason’s skills of designing for both stage musicals and concerts. “The space and the way we're telling the story feels like an intersection of a Broadway musical, a giant rock concert and an art installation. We say it's a happening.” This specific happening will have a live audience and a live band, unlike Fox’s previously televised musicals. “We have the benefit of creating something that is more 360, more environmental,” Jason said, “while still honoring some iconic images that people come to expect.”
Jason grew up in New Jersey and developed a love of theater and graphic design early on. It wasn’t until his high school drama teacher encouraged him to design the set for a production of “Noises Off” that he decided to combine his two interests and pursue a career in scenic design. After studying that field at NYU, he interned and worked alongside other designers before eventually setting off on his own. He quickly made a name for himself, creating quirky, conceptual, sculptural spaces. “People don't call me a lot to design box set interiors or kitchens,” he explained with a laugh. That style led to designing the set for The Chainsmoker’s appearance on “SNL,” which led to his fruitful collaboration with Sam Smith. After “Rent,” he’s working on the upcoming Spice Girls tour, another super-secret project that has a personal connection. The Spice Girls was Jason’s first concert.
As for “Rent,” Jason is excited for the public to see the world he and his collaborators have created and have a new generation experience this show. “The America that we live in today is as divided and dangerous as any other time in America to be a queer person or a person of color or a trans person or an immigrant,” he said, “This is a story about acceptance and love and togetherness and unity. It's about celebrating who you are building your family the way your heart leads.”
“Rent: Live” airs January 27 on Fox. You can find out more information about Jason Sherwood’s work on his website.