Can a Computer Write a Musical?

Beyond the Fence - the world's first computer generated musical 

The Arts Theatre London until Saturday 5th March 2016  

CJ Johnson and Rebecca Brewer in Beyond the Fence. Photo by Robert Workman

When I heard about a Sky Arts commissioned project to write a piece of musical theatre using computers I was both excited and skeptical. After all, the thing that makes musical theatre such a powerful and beloved art form is the way the art form reflects what is means to be human. By using music to explore the best and worst of human experience, MT is, in its simplest form, the musical enactment of emotions; of love, loss and the glory of over-coming adversity. It's why we cry with Eponine as she mulls on her unrequited love, why the lovers' deaths in West Side Story are so tragic and how the friendship of two teenage wannabe witches in Wicked moves us to tears. We see ourselves, and the world around us, on stage. Surely a computer isn't capable of recognizing, reflecting upon and putting into music and lyrics these most intimate and human of stories?

Beyond the Fence is the first of its kind, an expedition into music and artificial intelligence that has explored the ways computers can contribute to the art of musical theatre. The science is broad and fascinating. The spark of an idea came first. The writing team found themselves with the following statement, one of a few generated by a 'What If' machine:

What if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love? 

Plot outline in hand, the team turned to computers to find a magical formula for MT success. As a lover of visualised statistics(!), I marvelled over a (simplified) graph in the show programme of computer generated reports charting the emotional highs and lows of successful musicals. From the high energy opener to the pre-interval comedy number and ballad on love and loss, computer software was able to confirm what humans have been musing on for centuries - good stories share characteristics. Guided by this and a set of criteria churned out by a computer that had studied the story elements that have made up the most successful and long-running musicals, the backdrop was dictated: to be a success the musical must include high stakes, be set in the 80s, have a 'happy ever after' ending, and not be based in America. 

So, armed with all of this data, a team began the curation process to file down and create a musical, like a sculptor with a block of marble. Firstly, the team needed to select a plot backdrop to fit the bill - and so emerged the remarkable, true story of the women of Greenham Common, at the peak of their struggles in 1982-3. So far, humans had be led to make a choice by rsurveying a set of criteria and ideas. Not too dissimilar to a normal musical theatre writing process, aside from the external input given by artificial intelligence... 

Cue phase 2: several more computers (one called Android Lloyd Webber!) begin to generate nuggets of music and lyrics. Thousands and thousands of pages in fact. Here's where the show's composers Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor really step up. Sifting through hundreds of hours of potential material, selecting, crafting, refining. Not being able to ask questions of their collaborators, but sift out the gems from the soil. The team then matched the show's computer-dictated shape to the songs, and connecting the dots with human written text and dialogue. 

So, did Beyond the Fence work as a piece of art? 

What I saw was most definitely a recognisable piece of musical theatre, and I enjoyed it. I was moved. I laughed, and I reflected - most of all thinking about what a musical really is, when we sand it down to its bare bones. 

I was most skeptical about emotional intensity, but I needn't have worried - the show's studious and obedient loyalty to the scientifically proven structure paid off. I was moved to tears at the loss dictated by the computers that must be included in Act Two. I enjoyed the production, and the cast's performances, particularly the comedy injected by the loveable Laura Jane Matthewson and wise presence provided by Annie Wensak. The direction, by rising star Luke Sheppard (and ably assisted by previous Starling Singer Matthew Eberhardt) was crisp and clear, making sense of sometimes busy and congested scenes. Cressida Carre's choreography was gentle and human, rightly keeping the characters at the heart of the action. The music sounded like... a rock musical. The melodies worked well enough, there was sufficient diversity in musical styles to keep me interested and the story took us with it, despite some unnecessary stereotyping and some flatter moments in the score. Do I want to buy the soundtrack? Probably not, although I do want to sing the comedy number on roller skates, 'Graceful' (every musical should have one number on skates...)

This all led me to thinking that the theatre's most powerful moments are crafted by the artists - the writers, creators, directors, actors above all else. The most human scene (which left me lip biting and holding back tears) came not from the music but from the spoken dialogue, incidentally written by human hand. The beauty of an older lady explaining loss to a child who cannot speak is devastatingly beautiful. The scene wasn't penned by a computer, but came from a heart of human experience. And that showed. 

Those composers quivering in their boots that they will soon be replaced by an automatic device need not worry. A peek at the show's creative team reveals a huge number of people all working hard to make sense of the computers they were tasked to work with. What is often done by one writer is here listed as the work of more than twelve people and five computers... Instead of being written by computers alone, this show has taken computer generated roots and allowed humans to carefully, lovingly curate them. While this show's main premise and character has been at the mercy of artificial intelligence, it has been crafted, shaped and shared with the world by humans who have given birth to it, and raised it to where it is today. 

So what's the future of musical theatre composer? It's clear from the development of technology that computers should and will increasingly continue to be tools to inspire and improve human endeavor. Computers will never be able to replace the human musical heart, but I welcome them to be our collaborators. 


See Beyond the Fence at the Arts Theatre London until Saturday 5th March or catch Computer Says Show, the documentary exploring the show's creation, on Sky Arts.