Spotlight: Spice Girls Stage Designer Jason Sherwood on Creating a 'Nostalgic Glitter Bomb of a Party'

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Tim Routledge
Jason Sherwood

"The first thing that I wanted to do was figure out what I wanted to see as a fan."

More than two decades ago, an 8-year old Jason Sherwood attended his first ever concert -- the Spice Girls' 1998 Spice World tour stop at PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey. Like thousands of others in the audience that night and at similar shows throughout the year, the debut tour from the '90s powerhouse girl group left a lasting impression. 

Spice mania hit internationally and Sherwood was far from the only prepubescent fan wearing out copies of the band's Spice and Spice World CDs on their Discmans and the pure camp 1997 movie Spice World on VHS. But when four of the group's original members (Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm and Geri Halliwell) announced plans for a 13-date U.K. reunion tour that kicked off late last month and wrapped Saturday night in London, he didn't just start digging out old memorabilia for nostalgia's sake. It was inspiration. 

"I was a die-hard fan. I loved them so much," Sherwood tells Billboard. "The concert had a big impact on me. It created a love of going to concerts. They put on a hell of a show.... I had this souvenir program from when I'd seen the show, which I still have and coveted because there were photos of them, but there are also photos from the tour."

Sherwood referenced that 20-year-old program after receiving an "out of the blue" call from producer Lee Lodge in November of 2018. As Sherwood recalls the conversation going, "He said, 'Jason can I tell you what I want, what I really, really want?' I said, 'Do not mess with me Lee.'" 

Lodge and Sherwood had worked closely together on Sam Smith's The Thrill of It All arena tour, which kicked off in March 2018, based on Smith's desire to create an intimate and dramatic live experience. A rising name in the New York theater scene, that was Sherwood's first foray into stage design for a touring production and now Lodge was looking to bring him onboard for the Spice Girls. 

"We knew that the Spice Girls was going to be about nostalgia and creating an escape for an evening," says Sherwood. "The first thing that I wanted to do was figure out what I wanted to see as a fan."

Growing up in a New Jersey suburb, Sherwood's parents nurtured an early interest in the theater. "My mom would take me out of school on Wednesdays every so often to see a matinee in the city with her. She and my Dad really fed this interest," he says. "I wasn't interested in being an actor. I wasn't interested in any of that. The construction of the world. The storytelling, the building of a visual universe was the thing that attracted me."

In his early 20s, Sherwood started to make a name for himself creating pieces that were immersive and experiential and more contemporary than most in the space. His work caught the attention of producer and director Raj Kapoor who asked Sherwood to create a one-off stage design for The Chainsmokers' appearance on Saturday Night Live in April 2017. That led to Sherwood designing the entire People's Choice Awards on E! with Kapoor and eventually to Sam Smith. 

"Sam and I hit it off right from the get-go," says Sherwood. "I had been a fan of his music for a while, but mainly I think as young gay men with a love of disco and a shared aesthetic sensibility we hit it off really quickly."

The Thrill of It All tour "was really life changing in a lot of ways because it felt like I was being given an opportunity to do something entirely new," says Sherwood. "What I was being asked to bring was the variance of the point of view that a life in the theater has afforded me. It was a wonderful chance to sort of apply modes of thinking and ideas and thought processes to a new medium."

Sherwood, Smith and Lodge worked together to create a show that Sherwood describes as "moody and sculptural and abstract." He explains, "Inside of a bigger arena, like Madison Square Garden, it can be so hard to create a sense of intimacy. That was something we really strived to do across all of the arenas that Sam played.... I was very proud of what I did."

When Lodge called about Sherwood tackling the Spice Girls reunion tour, it was working with the same team as with Smith's shows, only this time they were tasked with 60,000-person stadiums and fans ranging from children to those who had been children when the epitomes of "girl power" first emerged. 

"It's 20 years later, I get to see the Spice Girls again; I wanted to figure out what my expectation would have been, which is a privilege pointed to come at it from -- I didn't have to learn their brand," says Sherwood. "It was interesting to revisit and think about what the iconic images were. I fell in love with the image on the back of the Spice CD. It is that golden ring that has 'Spice Girls' etched into it."

For the nearly 1 million fans who were able to see the Spice Girls reunion tour on one or more of their 13 dates, the stage featured a massive globe at its center that was encircled by a band similar to that iconic image on the back of the band's debut album. The stage was flanked by mammoth screens and stretched out into the middle of the audience was a half-circle runway that jutted out 120 feet. 

Sherwood explains his initial discussions with Brown, Bunton, Chisholm and Halliwell were immediately about inclusivity and creating a show based around empowerment. 

"When I was thinking about the design, the concept of round shapes, inclusive shapes, things without corners became really important. That's why every single line you see is enforcing curve or is a literal curve," he says. Of the runway, he adds, "Emma said it felt like we're giving the audience a big hug, which is visually what we wanted it to feel like. We wanted it to feel like everyone is welcome there."

The onstage video content was inspired by 1990s throwback images including several of the Spice Girls' original music videos. A 1990s playlist set the mood before the group took the stage and the screens and band around the center globe ran lyrics to nearly every song creating a stadium-wide sing-a-long for each number. 

"The Girls weren't trying to create a show that looked or felt or lived in the same space that an artist like, say, Taylor Swift or Katy Perry is going to create, because they're out there creating new music," Sherwood says. "With the Girls, it was about celebration. We didn't have to be cool in the traditional sense or whatever that means. We didn't have to strive to be cutting edge in that way. We had to present the music as simultaneously a throwback and then sometimes throw in reinvention and then layer in this contemporary aesthetic sense."

"We really wanted there to be a sense that you were coming to this enormous, inclusive, nostalgic glitter bomb of a party."

The Spice World 2019 reunion tour wrapped on Saturday with a three-night stint at Wembley Stadium in London, closing out a triumphant experience for the theatrical stage designer. Sherwood's next big project following his work on Fox's Rent Live and 2019's Grammy Awards earlier this year will be taking on pop singer Sara Bareilles' upcoming Amidst the Chaos tour, which kicks off in October. 

"It has been this really nice thing where I get to bring my love of theatrical storytelling to the music space," says Sherwood, "and sometimes merging the two."

SPOTLIGHT:

When I strategize I consider the collective vision of my collaborators. The work that this group of people make is work that only this group of people could have made. 

The best advice I have received is that people will want to work with you because of the work that you make, but people will keep working with you because of how you make the work, which is to say you should have fun at work.

My big break was being born to two unbelievable parents who love me unconditionally and are the greatest humans alive. Professionally, my big break was having lunch with Sam Smith on a May afternoon in 2018 talking about heartache, disco and music. It changed my life, that show. 

I knew I was committed to stage design when I stood at the back of the audience for the first project that I ever designed and watched my parents and the rest of my family watch what I made and felt like I had been part of creating a storytelling experience that we all got to enjoy it together.

What most people don't understand about stage design is that I don't wear a tool belt to work. I'll go on a date with someone and they'll be like, 'So you build stuff with your hands.' I'm like, 'No. I design things. I draw. I model.'

What's next for me is hopefully something new. I am primarily turned on by the unknown and by getting to sort of flex muscles that I haven't before or that are underdeveloped. Or flex muscles in new ways and sort of collaborate on projects that are outside of my comfort zone. I love the challenge.

Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

 


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