Fox’s ‘Rent’ featured Easter egg nods to original production, ’90s NYC

"Rent," starring Vanessa Hudgens, included a few fun nods to the original Broadway production. 
"Rent," starring Vanessa Hudgens, included a few fun nods to the original Broadway production.  Photo Credit: Courtesy Chelsey White

Two hundred sixty-two thousand eight hundred minutes: That’s about how long it took the production team to prep for Fox’s “Rent” semi-live television event.

Though marked by an ankle injury that prevented lead Brennin Hunt from performing Sunday night for what was expected to be the latest of the live TV musicals, the show went on with a prerecorded rehearsal shot in front of an audience the night prior.

“The show everyone saw was a live show, it just wasn’t meant to be our final take,” says “Rent’s” Manhattan-based production designer Jason Sherwood. “But I thought what we put out was beautiful and I was really proud of it. It had all of the elements and all of the hard work and heart that everyone put into it for so long.”

On a soundstage at Stage 16 of Fox Studios in Los Angeles, Sherwood and a team of nearly 400 planned for six months to build a 360-degree immersive set that sent viewers to the East Coast.

"Rent" aired Sunday on Fox, but it wasn't exactly live. 
"Rent" aired Sunday on Fox, but it wasn’t exactly live.  Photo Credit: FOX/Kevin Estrada

The TV adaptation of the beloved production that first opened on Broadway in 1996 featured “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Valentina, Vanessa Hudgens and “Grease Live’s” Jordan Fisher, among others, as they told the familiar tale of a group of New York artists dealing with the AIDS crisis of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The TV version — directed by Michale Graves of the original Pulitzer Prize-winning production — came with its changes. Fans early on noticed debatable lyric swaps and the set wasn’t an exact replica of the Great White Way stage.

“It’s an entirely new design, but we had to absolutely capture the feeling and what was beloved about the original,” Sherwood says, like the noteworthy scene where artist Maureen Johnson (played by Hudgens) belts out “Over the Moon.”

Four major stage points, including the loft, remained static throughout the production as a camera spanned the circular-set with exposed brick serving as Manhattan apartment buildings.

“Stage 16 is essentially like a big warehouse and had a lot of character and a lot of grit. We wanted to utilize that in a unique way, so I left the space exposed which felt very much like New York anyway,” explains Sherwood, 29, who’s lived in Manhattan for the past 11 years.

Brennin Hunt was injured during the rehearsal taping of Fox's "Rent" special. 
Brennin Hunt was injured during the rehearsal taping of Fox’s "Rent" special.  Photo Credit: FOX/Ray Mickshaw

Signs for a “Deli and Grocery” bodega and a neon hotel, as well as “Broadway Cares” posters and a recreated Astor Place subway stop brought the set into the Lower East Side, circa 1990.

A number of Easter eggs were slipped into the bohemian-style setting, too, offering up subtle nods for serious Rentheads.

On the pay phone visible in the second act’s "Halloween” number, performed by Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, was a Moondance Diner poster. It’s a tie-in to the former SoHo diner where playwright Jonathan Larson was employed for years before quitting his job to work on the famous production. Larson, who created “Rent,” died in 1996 before seeing his musical reach the height of its success.

“Also, the mural that is behind Collins (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Angel (Valentina) during ‘I’ll Cover You’ is a nod to a very famous Keith Haring mural that was down on the Bowery in the early ’90s,” he adds. The mural was painted on the corner of Bowery and Houston in 1982 by Haring, a graffiti-style pop artist who died from AIDS in 1990.

“Whether the audience knew it was the early ’90s or not, we had done that work,” he says. “A big part of reaching into the period was where we staged ‘Seasons of Love,’ which began with a voice-over of what was happening in the AIDS crisis at the time. That was very important to tell.”

Placed on set during these scenes was a “silence = death” poster, a replica of ones created by Haring to draw attention to the AIDS crisis before his death.

Though the production was criticized by critics (and recorded low early viewership numbers) after unexpectedly airing its dress rehearsal rather than the expected live show, Sherwood says it’s the message behind the production that makes it stand out among other television musicals.

“Being a part of this — seeing those two [Collins and Angel] singing love songs to each other on national television — it’s still meaningful and I was especially proud of that storytelling,” he says.