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Guilty Party!

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Their show is called Law & Order, not Cop Rock—but try telling Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin and S. Epatha Merkerson. The Law costars, all of them musical theater vets, can’t keep from breaking into song on set. During a recent scene, says Merkerson, “they’re at a car wash, and ‘Car Wash,’ from the movie, was the big song of the day. That keeps the set lively.”

Certainly the cast has plenty to sing about. Since its debut on Sept. 13, 1990, Law & Order has turned into TV’s most durable franchise and will air its 300th episode on May 21. The cop-law hybrid drama, which now airs up to 30 times a week on NBC and TNT, has received a record 11 consecutive Emmy nominations for best drama series (it won in 1997) and launched two successful spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. “You never seem to be able to exhaust it,” says Sam Waterston of the show’s famous ripped-from-the-headlines plots. “The news is always new.” So is the ever-changing cast, which currently includes Orbach, 67 (Det. Lennie Briscoe); Martin, 34 (Det. Ed Green); Waterston, 62 (Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy); Elisabeth Rohm, 30 (A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn); Merkerson, 50 (Lt. Anita Van Buren); and Fred Thompson, 60 (D.A. Arthur Branch).

With ratings improving each year, Order shows no sign of arrested development (“The passion is undimmed,” says creator Dick Wolf)—just a life sentence of spinoff possibilities. “Jerry and I joke that one day there will be Law & Order: Parking Violations,” says Merkerson. “There’s no end to it.”