Traditionally, when Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is performed on stage, the production design is minimal, consisting primarily of some scaffolding and a sculptural tree, with a long table, some chairs and a trash can as key set decorations. When approaching Fox’s live broadcast of the musical, production designer Jason Sherwood knew he had to honor that original spirit but still build out the world for a 360-degree, fully immersive experience.The entry point for him, as well as for stage director Michael Greif (Alex Rudzinski of “Grease: Live” will be the live-television director), was the loft of characters Mark and Roger, which Sherwood calls the “heart of the story.” It was the first set piece they talked about and it’s the center of the overall installation in Stage 16 on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, where the live musical will be performed on Jan. 27.
“On a theater stage you can represent a whole apartment with a table — in a film, not so much,” Sherwood says. “But in this particular sense we wanted to have a healthy mix between a character-driven understanding of what’s happening and suggestions of environment.”
What Sherwood and Greif conceived and ultimately built was a two-story industrial set full of reclaimed, period-accurate furniture designed to evoke the early-1990s in New York’s East Village. “We wanted to cash in on the reality of age of some things,” Sherwood says. “All of the scaffolding that’s used in the space has been laying around in for years. We didn’t build all of this custom metalwork for our show.”
Of course, that meant the metal had to be put through sanding and other processes to ensure safety. But the authenticity it provides proved worth the extra effort for the production team.
The story references the fact that Mark and Roger (played by Jordan Fisher and Brennin Hunt, respectively) live on the top floor of an old music-publishing factory, so Sherwood says the team wanted the room’s physical elements, such as an old, dilapidated skylight, to be “skeletal and abstract and a palate for lighting” rather than something that would seem largely naturalistic.
Sherwood fleshed out the space with details including a claw-foot bathtub — an homage to the tub that Larson himself had in his own kitchen at the time he was writing the show — as well as radiator covers and an old printer’s table.
Adding such large pieces of furniture into the space gave Greif more to work with when moving his actors around, but he also was able to return to a lot of the original stage direction that preceded his 1996 Broadway production, he notes. “They were really elaborate set designs, and some of those stage directions leaked their way into the opening of the play to sort of justify, ‘We don’t have any of those things, so use your imagination.’ But this [version] seemed like a fantastic opportunity to go back to those things.”
Another area in which Sherwood got to hone in on details was the infamous Christmas tree set piece, which he reimagined as an homage to the “famous art installations in Alphabet City at the time that were just made out of trash.” Designing a looming tower of recycled materials, including detergent containers, bicycle wheels and milk cartons, he notes: “This is a great example of something that we wanted to have a homemade nature, but it still had to fit the room.”
All of the items on the tree are tethered to a chicken-wire frame, with lights inside and outside, and the overall structure is designed to lift off-stage before the play reaches the “Happy New Year” number.
“One of the things that’s so wonderful for me is the opportunity to have close-ups and to be able to glimpse detail, especially in an environment that then goes theatrical and huge a moment later,” Greif says. “That tension is really exciting to me.”