EXCLUSIVE: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has a warrant out, in a manner of speaking, for Broadway actors. Next week’s episode features Tony-nominated Hadestown actor Eva Noblezada and Beetlejuice himself Alex Brightman, and showrunner Warren Leight tells Deadline that’s just the beginning.
Last night, after the episode casting was announced, Leight tweeted, “We are trying to hire every Broadway actor we can while we and they wait for the curtains to rise again.” And he wasn’t joking.
“We know how hard the community has been hit here,” Leight said in an interview. “The goal is to get as many jobs to as many theater actors as we possibly can.”
The offer couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released figures indicating that while the overall unemployment rate has averaged 8.5 percent, the average among actors was 52 percent. (The figures do not distinguish between Broadway, film and TV performers.)
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The NBC New York-based L&O franchise has long been known as a steady source of employment for the city’s theater performers – rare is the stage actor whose Playbill credits don’t include at least one of the L&O series – but the pandemic has pushed Leight’s team to ramp up even those efforts for the current Season 22.
Stage actors already cast in parts for this season include the Tony-winning Adriane Lenox (Doubt: A Parable, After Midnight), Elizabeth Marvel (King Lear, Picnic), Jane Bruce (Jagged Little Pill), Jelani Alladin (Disney’s Frozen), Michael Mastro (Love! Valour! Compassion!), and Betsy Aidem (Steel Magnolias).
Even Raúl Esparza, a four-time Tony nominee known to the wider TV audience for his six-season SVU run as Assistant D.A. Rafael Barba, is making a temporary franchise comeback to reprise the role for this week’s episode “Sightless in a Savage Land.”
Leight says the Broadway-filled roles range in scope from one-day parts to more substantial turns, but have an important practical impact for the actors, adding to the work day minimums required for Actors Equity-Broadway League health insurance.
The casting offers a significant logistical benefit to the show as well: casting New York actors is the more practical and efficient option during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the prospect of long-distance flights from Hollywood and required quarantine protocols can complicate using Los Angeles-based actors.
“In the past we’ve done what you could call Hollywood stunt casting,” Leight says, “but a lot of those players aren’t going to be willing to get on a plane and quarantine right now. We realized early on that we’ll have to cast locally much more.”
The Broadway shutdown also allows the show to get around the planning issues that Broadway’s usual performance schedule demands: Coordinating a shoot around the identical eight-performance weeks of working stage actors like Noblezada and Brightman (who Leight says enact “a horribly failed virtual romance” in the Jan. 14 episode) is daunting. There’s only so much guest-starring that can be crammed into a dark Broadway Monday.
Yet another plus for the production: Stage actors, accustomed to the tightrope walk of eight shows a week, are what Leight calls “money players,” guest stars who “hit their marks and can do it over and over” quickly. With pandemic safety precautions enforced on set – minimal personal contact, Covid testing, noisy stop-and-start ventilation, among other things – the production, he says, “doesn’t have time for actors who need to find it.”
“Our directors need to know that [guest actors] can do two scenes with Olivia and not be nervous,” he adds, referring to star Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson character.
Leight himself has an extensive stage background, including his 1998 Tony-winning Best Play Side Man, a Pulitzer finalist that starred the Tony-winning Frank Wood.
And yes, Wood will be popping up on SVU this season. Leight says SVU‘s medical examiners office has been “augmented” to include a role for his old friend. (“It’s perfect,” the showrunner jokes. “Frank looks like he’s been living in a morgue for years.”)
Leight’s Tuesday night tweet was met with a quick response from New York stage actors. Jennifer Mudge, whose Broadway and Off Broadway credits include Into The Woods, Rocky and The Philanthropist, tweeted, “Warren, I feel like now is the time to tell you that only SVU is missing from my L&O trifecta completion. (Mothership twice!),” to which Leight responded, “On it.”
Three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello (Kiss Me, Kate, Falsettos, Mamma Mia!) tweeted a simple, “Much appreciated,” while West Side Story actor Danny Wolohan wrote, “Broadway’s Officer Krupke says thank you!”
And Chris Orbach – actor, writer, musician and, as the son of the late Jerry Orbach, a member of an L&O royal family – weighed in. “God love you,” he responded to Leight’s tweet. “You cats are good like that.”
Law & Order: SVU, from Wolf Entertainment and Universal Television, airs Thursdays at 9 pm on NBC.
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