Can computers calculate the formula for a successful musical? British theatergoers will soon find out. According to The Guardian, UK TV channel Sky Arts has commissioned the creation of a computer-generated musical, to premiere at the Arts Theater in London in February 2016. 

Entitled Beyond the Fence, the musical is a collaboration between humans and machines. While computers generated elements of plot and score, humans created the choreography and staging. Lyrics, meanwhile, were a collaboration between Nathan Taylor and Benjamin Till (creators of 2014's Our Gay Wedding: The Musical), and a recurrent neural network system called The Cloud Lyricist.

The project was designed as an experiment in computer creativity, and Sky Arts went into production unsure exactly what kind of musical—if any—a computer could generate. “It is a mad experiment,” producer Catherine Gale told The Guardian. “No one has ever done it before and we really didn’t know what was going to happen when we started.”

Before beginning work on the musical itself, the team began with data analysis to figure out just what distinguishes a hit musical from a flop. By inputting information from past musicals, researchers from the Machine Learning Group at Cambridge University identified the emotional structures, settings, and cast sizes that were historically most successful. 

Drawing on that data, the musical team used the University of London’s What-If Machine to develop key themes and characters, enlisted a computer system called PropperWryter to build the narrative, and hired computer music researcher Nick Collins to provide a computer-generated score. 

The result, according to Gale, was surprisingly coherent: “It looks like what is coming together is actually something which is quite traditional ... it is not a crazy, avant garde, mad show.” 

Set in the 1980s, the musical follows a woman and her daughter living in Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (a real camp set up by activist group “Women for Life on Earth” in the '80s to protest nuclear weapons). When the authorities threaten to take the woman’s child, she finds an “unlikely ally” in US Airman Jim Meadow. 

Whether the musical is any good or not remains to be seen. Gale argues that, either way, the experiment was a useful learning experience, proving that computers can be a valuable part of the creative process. She told The Guardian, “It’s like holding up a mirror because when you try to get a system to be creative ... It challenges you to ask: ‘How do we do it?’”

[h/t: The Guardian]