West End debut for world’s first computer-generated musical

Benjamin Till, Bob Sturm & Nathan Taylor
Benjamin Till, Bob Sturm & Nathan Taylor

The first musical, conceived and crafted by computer, makes its debut in February with a premise and plot created by the Goldsmiths, University of London’s ‘What-If Machine’ program.

In a world becoming ever more technologically advanced, and reliant on computers, machine learning and artificial intelligence are rapidly and fundamentally changing every aspect of human experience.

Now we’re about to see how technology can affect art and the creative process.

Presented by Wingspan Theatricals and Sky Arts, Beyond the Fence runs at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End from February 22, directed by Luke Sheppard.

The show is both conceived and substantially crafted by computer, modeled on a statistical study of the ‘recipe for success’ in hit musicals.

Maria Teresa Llano, Benjamin Till & Nathan Taylor

In collaboration with leading experts in music, computation and the science of human creativity, composer Benjamin Till and his husband, writer and actor Nathan Taylor (the award-winning team behind Channel 4’s Our Gay Wedding: The Musical), will bring a range of computer-generated material to life.

They have aimed to create an emotionally powerful and exciting West End show, which is, at the same time, the grandest of experiments, designed and co-ordinated by Dr Catherine Gale.

Beyond the Fence started as an experiment, with researchers delving into what makes a good musical, from production and story to music and lyrics.

The process began with a predictive, big data analysis of success in musical theatre, conducted at the University of Cambridge.

Researchers examined everything from cast size to backdrop, emotional structure to the importance of someone falling in love, dying (or both) – in more and less successful shows – to create a set of constraints to which the musical had to conform, to theoretically optimise chances of success.

Next, the team visited what’s known as the What-If Machine at Goldsmiths.

The Machine was created under a three-year initiative, starting in 2013, to answer the question of whether creative software can generate, assess, and present interesting ideas – whether it’s stories, jokes, films or paintings – that will be appreciated by people who are exposed to them.

The team eventually settled on one original idea for the musical – what if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?

And so Beyond The Fence was born. Set in 1982, Mary and her daughter George are celebrating a year of living at the Greenham Common peace camp. The group of women they have joined are all committed to stopping the arrival of US cruise missiles through non-violent protest.

When Mary is faced with losing her child to the authorities, an unlikely ally is found in US Airman Jim Meadow. How can she continue to do what is best for her daughter while staying true to her ideals?

A plot structure for the musical was also generated computationally, thanks to work led by Dr Pablo Gervás of Complutense University of Madrid.

Finally, the music has been provided by Dr Nick Collins, of Durham University, through his computer composition system, the wittily-named Android Lloyd Webber.

Beyond The Fence plays at the Arts Theatre from February 22-March 5.

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