Can a Computer Write a Hit Musical? Thanks to Machine Learning, We’re About to Find Out

by Jamie Beckett

Computers can drive, create recipes, even compose rap songs. London audiences will soon find out whether they can write a hit musical, too.

The new show, “Beyond the Fence,” is the world’s first musical conceived and substantially crafted by computer. Opening next month in the West End, it’s an experiment to determine how technology affects art and the creative process.

“Obviously one of the hardest things for a machine to do would be to create, experience and understand art,” said Archie Baron, the show’s executive producer, who helped devise the experiment. “So, we thought, ‘Why not try?’”

Recipe for Success

Beyond the Fence” started with an advantage human-written shows lack: a clear recipe for success. University of Cambridge researchers used machine learning to analyze what separates a hit musical from a flop. The team looked at factors like cast size, setting and themes explored. They asked whether successful shows always had romance or death, or both.

Two of the researchers, Alex Davis and James Robert Lloyd, then created a machine learning-based lyricist named Claudia. In machine learning, computers are trained with vast amounts of data, and then learn on their own, correcting mistakes and improving over time.

Claudia had a less-than-traditional musical education: She learned English from Wikipedia. Her knowledge of lyrics came from a collection from Wingspan Productions, a TV production company. Researchers trained her on a machine learning system powered by four GPUs hosted in the Amazon Web Services cloud. GPUs are ideal for machine learning because they have the computing power to dramatically speed up the learning process.

Once trained, Claudia generated lyrics for the show’s human creators, composer Benjamin Till and writer and actor Nathan Taylor.

Premise, Structure and Music

Other computer-created elements of the show include:

  • The musical’s premise — “What if a wounded soldier had to learn to understand a child to find true love?” — came out of a Goldsmiths, University of London, research project called the What-If Machine.
  • Its plot structure was developed by adapting an existing storytelling computer system called PropperWryter.
  • Its music was created by a computer composition system called Android Lloyd Webber, which is based on a machine learning analysis of show tunes.

Set in September 1982, “Beyond the Fence” tells the story of a mother and daughter living at a peace camp in Berkshire, England, to protest the arrival of U.S. cruise missiles. When the mother is faced with losing her child to the authorities, she finds an unlikely ally in a U.S. airman.

“We still don’t know how it will turn out, what people will make of it or what conversations it will start,” said Baron, founder of Wingspan Productions, which is chronicling the experiment for a TV broadcast by England’s Sky Arts. “But it’s clearly a milestone in theatre history and computational creativity.”

The show runs from February 22 to March 5 at London’s Arts Theatre.