ABC’s ‘General Hospital’ marked its 60th anniversary recently, making it the longest-running scripted show currently in production on American television.
The soap marked the milestone with a fan favourite storyline, the Nurses Ball, a gala that raises money for charity. The residents of the fictional city of Port Charles dressed to the nines and walked a red carpet. In a guest appearance, Chandra Wilson of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ played fashion editor Sydney Val Jean.
“She’s a big fan of the show,” said executive producer Frank Valentini of Wilson. “She taped all the scenes on the red carpet and was working at ‘Grey’s’ the same day. I’m just so crazy about her.”
Valentini is pumped about this year’s musical performances too, as a number of the cast can sing and dance.
“Some of the numbers are some of the best things we’ve ever done, and we’ve done some really good stuff.”
While viewers enjoyed the ball as it played out, Valentini and head writers, Dan O’Connor and Chris Van Etten, are looking at storylines for the summer — and beyond. Right now, the show is scripted through the end of May, with writers outlining June.
Valentini, O’Connor and Van Etten spoke to The Associated Press, sharing a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to keep ‘General Hospital’ on track, crafting storylines, production, balancing veteran characters with new faces and other topics.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
On writers taking the long game
Van Etten: There are stories that have certain benchmarks that we want to hit. We try to say, ‘OK, Chapter 1 may take us through September. Chapter 2 can take us into November.’ You get the right bang for your buck by letting a secret or letting a piece of information stew for as long as you can make it make sense and not bore the audience. It’s a weird tightrope to balance.
Writing and producing a soap is a puzzle
Van Etten: There’s a puzzle on a micro level and on a macro level. On a micro level, every week, we’re looking at not just the story and where we want to move the plot and characters, but there are certain economic issues. The studio can only accommodate so many sets at a time. If we put up a set on a Monday, it’s best to try to use that on a Tuesday and then even again on a Wednesday because it will save time and money. We will take these puzzle pieces of, ‘These are the stories. These are the characters. How can we move the story within the set and other economic considerations that we have?’
Balancing legacy players with new faces
When Valentini took over as executive producer in 2012, he leaned into the soap’s history and brought back several of its veteran cast. Some made appearances, others stayed on. Today, ‘General Hospital’ has veteran cast members, including Genie Francis, Tristan Rogers, Finola Hughes, Kristina Wagner and Lynn Herring, who are very much in the mix. There’s another tier of longtime cast members — Maurice Benard, Rebecca Herbst, Laura Wright and Chad Duell, for example — who are in front-burner stories. The soap regularly features storylines with its newer cast, including Tabyana Ali, Nicholas Chavez and Evan Hofer.
Valentini: When you inherit so much history and so many front-loaded characters and stories, you can’t just abandon them. Having been at ‘One Life to Live’ for many years, EPs would come in and they would fire the whole staff. They’d fire all the writers. They would change the show and start from ground zero. I never think that’s the right thing to do. You don’t burn the ship. You turn it around. The cast is just phenomenal, and the few people that we’ve added over the years, I think have really complemented and given the characters on the show storyline. You bring in people to support who you have. We introduce the new characters slowly and methodically and in a way that the audience responds to them.
Story is created around big set pieces: The writers say if a big set goes up, the locale needs to get used. An example is a hotel pool where characters catch rays.
Van Etten: The Metro Court pool is a special case because you’ve got to fill a big tank of water that’s too costly to empty out and then fill back up again based on the writer’s whim. We had bugged Frank for years, ‘We want a pool. We want a pool for the summer because we have a very attractive cast, and we should show them off... They are wonderful actors, but they’re also beautiful.’ When he finally yielded to our unrelenting pressure, one of the rules about using the pool is that when it goes up, it stays up.
When to refresh a set
The Quartermaines are a wealthy family in Port Charles and all live together in a big mansion. Over time it’s been upgraded with a new foyer, parlor, a solarium and even a breakfast nook.
Valentini: The Quartermaine living room just seemed very old (before). They are a very wealthy family... People redo their living rooms and people redo their kitchens. These are places that legitimize and help to authenticate the characters in the world that they live in. And I think when the characters aren’t in the right location, it detracts, and it compromises their integrity. When you see (Benard’s character) Sonny (Corinthos) in his cool penthouse, that speaks to the character.
Soap Opera Rapid Ageing Syndrome
The syndrome is a phenomenon where a young character is suddenly aged for storyline purposes. This has happened many times over the years including with Eden McCoy, who plays Josslyn Jacks, and Chavez’s character Spencer Cassadine.
O’Connor: Usually it’s a conversation that we have, especially when certain characters move out of some generational benchmarks. Our high school characters are now college age and young adults. So that would be a discussion, ‘Hey, maybe there is room for an adolescent set of characters on the show.’ It’s based off our needs and the story and the show.
Van Etten: There’s also an X factor in there. We have the best casting director in the business, Mark Teschner. He’ll just unearth someone and especially if it’s a younger person, he’ll bring this person to Frank’s attention. Frank may look at the canvas as a whole and say, ‘We have a 6-year-old character who doesn’t necessarily fulfill a real purpose except to be this person’s child. Maybe if by aging them to 12 with this younger actor that Mark has found, we can get more story.’
Staying true to the show’s history
With 60 years of story, the writers must remember the history of the characters as best they can, including marriages, babies, and health scares.
O’Connor: I’d say it’s a collective effort. We do have producers in charge of continuity, but as writers, we all share in that responsibility as well. And the fact that so many of us, if not most of us, were lifelong fans, that certainly helps.
Van Etten: This is me speaking for me, not the writers. I personally believe you shouldn’t let adherence to continuity get in the way of a really good story. You don’t want it to be something that completely conflicts with a character’s 40 years of history, but if you can find a little bit of wiggle room, if you can justify why something that happened back in 1979 might today be viewed through a different lens and therefore make a current story work, I can justify that.
It’s normal for viewers to react both positively and negatively to various storylines, but nowadays with social media, they are given a megaphone to blast those thoughts to the world immediately and in large quantities. The writers appreciate the feedback but also try to not get too fixated on it.
Van Etten: When I was a breakdown writer, I would read Twitter on days when my episode was on. Now that I have a much larger responsibility for the show, I’m very sensitive and I want to put out something that people like. If they don’t like it, they’re usually very, very particular about not liking it. I can’t. I don’t need that in my life.
O’Connor: Different social media platforms and audiences seem to have different opinions about certain things. So, it’s hard to say. There’s a consensus on the show as a whole or the stories when you go to, say, Twitter. (Twitter) has a different opinion than Instagram or Facebook or the message boards. So it’s hard to gauge just from that feedback which opinion represents the majority of our audience.
Is Luke Spencer really dead?
O’Connor: There’s very few deaths in Port Charles that are permanent. You never know.