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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things
Today's topic: In honor of the reboot of the original Law & Order, TDF's Tyler Riley and Raven Snook dish about their favorite criminal performances by Broadway icons in the franchise.
Raven Snook: If we did a Geek Out/Freak Out about ALL the Broadway stars who've appeared on ALL the Law & Orders, we'd be chatting until the 2023 Tonys! I used to joke that Broadway actors shouldn't even be allowed to mention L&O in their Playbill bios anymore, it's such a cliché. So today, we're going to focus on villainous performances on L&O! It's so delicious watching good stage stars play bad, like that time Ethan Slater portrayed an incel rapist on L&O: Special Victims Unit. I kept thinking, SpongeBob, how COULD you? This is not your best day ever. I kept expecting him to break out into song!
Did you see the first episode of the new-classic L&O? (Such a new-classic Coke idea.) Norm Lewis played a Bill Cosby-like star who gets out of jail on a technicality after being convicted of assaulting multiple women. SPOILER ALERT: He's killed by one of his victims. He wasn't even the MAIN villain. He was the SLAIN villain!
And now it looks like LaChanze may have a recurring role on SVU as the president of Hudson U (basically the show's Columbia University-meets-NYU). I thought she was going to be a villain, but in the end she turned out to be an ally. I LOVE seeing her in a position of power!
Tyler Riley: Yes! It is wild seeing so many beloved stars play against type. I thought the Norm Lewis episode of the reboot was fantastic and I didn't mind seeing that character meet his maker. Two of my favorite L&O episodes were a crossover between SVU and Trial By Jury, with guest stars Alfred Molina as a serial rapist and Angela Lansbury as his wealthy mother who covers up his crimes.
Raven: Oh, I LOVED Night and Day (don't worry, I didn't know the episode titles off the top of my head. I had to Google!). I actually interviewed Molina back when he was appearing in Red on Broadway, and the night before we talked I saw a rerun of that two-parter. That sure put me ill at ease.
Tyler: Fun fact: TDF's very own Gladys Pérez guest-starred in the SVU part of that crossover as Yolanda Martinez.
Raven: I had no idea! And there's additional theatre royalty in that two-parter. Just look at the cast list: Bebe Neuwirth as an A.D.A., Bradley Cooper as a lawyer and Rita Moreno as an immigrants' rights activist. I wonder what was going on with this episode that they got so many big names? (Although this is Cooper pre-Oscar nominations.) And if you really want to deep dive, Marla Schaffel, who was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Jane Eyre, was in the episode, too!
Tyler: I also remember seeing Viola Davis back in 2002 as a rare female serial killer on L&O: Criminal Intent—she was so chilling! And apparently, she loved the part. She even said, "I appreciated killing a whole family with a baseball bat"! Now she's ruthless as Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad movies. Apparently even director James Gunn is scared of her as Waller!
Raven: Oh yes, I remember Davis in Badge (again, thanks Google!). I love that this woman can play anything and that she enjoys being awful! Later, she went on to have a recurring role as an attorney on Special Victims Unit, but I'm sure that wasn't as fun.
There really is something more exciting about spotting a stage star as a perp on L&O, rather than an attorney or victim. Like when perennial nice guy Jeremy Jordan played a B-lister who rapes his James Franco-like pal's date. Did you see that one? Patti LuPone played his agent!
What is it about seeing them as villains that's so thrilling? You said it's playing against type, and that's true. But Jordan did play one of the title murders in the Bonnie and Clyde musical on Broadway. I think it's because on L&O, they usually get to ham it up—especially when they finally confess. There's something more dramatic and theatrical about being the bad guy.
Tyler: Yes! I did see the Jordan episode and it was so uncomfortable… not that there are really any comfortable episodes of SVU.
I think when you spot a Broadway star as a villain on L&O, it's almost like when you watch an older film and you see an actor who is really famous now, like Cuba Gooding Jr. in a nonspeaking role in Coming to America, know what I mean? You're seeing them in some new, thrilling context.
Raven: Ha! I remember Gooding in that. But I feel like this is different. Often, we know these stage actors and their roles so well. I think part of it is, being on L&O brings them down to earth somehow. Off the stage and into our city. The idea of them being criminals makes them even more… accessible? That's not the word I'm looking for. I do not want to run into any criminals!
Tyler: Yeah, I'm all for avoiding criminals if possible. There have just been so many great villainous performances from stage actors and maybe it starts with the training. We had Alex Brightman torturing poor Eva Noblezada's camgirl on SVU; sadist Roger Bart assaulting Anna Chlumsky and his courtroom showdown with Raúl Esparza; the list could go on and on. It's truly a beautiful relationship between theatre actors and the L&O universe. I remember the franchise made a real effort to hire as many stage performers as possible during the shutdown.
Raven: Yes! For my stage star fix during the shutdown I watched L&O (both old and new) and The Bite. Did you see that crazy, campy zombie pandemic series? Audra McDonald played Leslie Uggams' daughter and they were both brilliant virologists. And Audra's real-life husband, Will Swenson, was her illicit lover, and her TV husband was Steven Pasquale, who was having an affair with Phillipa Soo, who's his real-life wife. It was THE BEST. Even better than The Gilded Age for theatre cameos. Which brings me to…
Donna Murphy! Mrs. Astor on The Gilded Age and a L&O favorite. But as far as I know, she only played a villain once: on the Criminal Intent episode Albatross when she hired someone to kill her deadbeat husband. Did you see that one? And are there any stage stars you hope to see play villains on the L&O reboot that just started?
Tyler: How on earth did I miss a Donna Murphy episode?! I'll have to see if it's on demand somewhere. Anyway, I would love to see Vanessa Williams as a villain. Shockingly, she has yet to appear on any L&O show! As anyone who watched Ugly Betty or the underrated movie Bad Hair knows, she plays a great villain!
Did we miss your favorite villainous performance by a Broadway star? Tell us in the comments!
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Tyler Riley is TDF's Online and Dance Programs Manager as well as an actor, voice-over artist and podcast host. He can be found on Instagram and on Twitter at @itstylerriley. Follow TDF on Twitter at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Viola Davis as a killer on the 2002 Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode Badge.