“Other interests include composing music for musical theatre, composing musical theatre music, music theatre composition, and the overthrow of humanity.” This is not your standard West End programme biography, but then this is not your standard composer, and it’s certainly not your standard musical.
This ambition belongs to the punningly named Android Lloyd Webber – the creation of Nick Collins, who researches computerised composition at Durham University, UK. It is one of the key creative partners on Beyond The Fence, billed as the world’s first computer-composed musical.
Musical theatre is all about collaboration, and this time there’s a very long list of collaborators. The catch is that most of them are not flesh and blood but software developed at universities from across the globe, each an attempt at testing the possibilities of computer “creativity”.
Joining “algorithmic composer” Android are plot-generating PropperWryter, computational creative FlowComposer, lyric-generating Clarissa the Cloud Lyricist and the “ideating”.
The silicon Sondheims have been joined by the human composing team of Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor, creators of the BAFTA-nominated Our Gay Wedding: The musical that saw them transform their nuptials into a West End-worthy show. They’ve sifted through the concepts thrown up by plot-generating algorithms, tamed Android LW’s more obscure melodies and cherry-picked the spurts of lyrical genius.
The resulting musical is a surprising, and surprisingly humane and earthy, escapade based on the Greenham Common women’s peace camp, a lengthy women-only protest at the siloing of nuclear missiles at the RAF Greenham Common airbase in the UK around the early 1980s – the height of the cold war.
Our heroine is Mary Moreton, a single mother who has fled an abusive relationship with her now-mute daughter George. George strikes up an unlikely friendship with US officer Jim Meadow across the chain-link fence, while the group of women face pressures from without and turmoil from within.
At its core, it’s classic, even cliched, stuff. There’s a hint of Romeo and Juliet (or should that be West Side Story?) to the burgeoning relationship between Mary and Jim, a touch of Miracle on 34th Street to the George subplot, and the idea of a band of women taking a stand against oppressors has been rehearsed in the West End as recently as last year’s short-lived musical staging of Made in Dagenham.
Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given that the computers which fired out the initial ideas had first been fed reams of data on the plot elements, time periods, settings and character types which go into the creation of a successful musical. For all the algorithmic cleverness behind the technology, a huge amount of its heavy lifting amounts to a kind of fine-grained market research.
It’s impossible to know how much of Android’s work made it into the score, though as for the lyrics, one guess during a post-show question and answer with the musical’s makers put it at 25 per cent computer-generated.
But within its work and the music and lyrics of Till and Taylor, there are some winning numbers, particularly the passionate duelling duet How Dare You? by Mary and Jim, and the rousing, folk-infused We Are Greenham as the women take to the silos to dance on a frosty New Year’s Eve.
The best of Beyond The Fence comes, you strongly suspect, from the minds of Till and Taylor. The work feels heavily inspired by Till’s upbringing in a commune of CND protesters, and the plethora of happy lesbian relationships (presented with a refreshing lack of sexualisation) is a genuine rarity on the London stage.
Conversely, it’s the formulaic plot – the hoary love story and a random eleventh-hour death – that feel like the clunky handiwork of computers.
It’s obviously a tremendous awareness-raising exercise for the institutions involved, sprinkling a bit of West End glitter on the field of. And with backing from the Wellcome Trust and the Sky Arts channel (which is producing the fascinating accompanying documentary series, Computer Says Show), it’s an ingenious way to raise funds for an activity as inherently high-risk as launching a new musical.
But as the curtain falls on Beyond The Fence, it’s clear that the UK’s musical theatre talents can sleep peacefully at night with little to fear from Android Lloyd Webber and his crowd of cybernetic pretenders. But watch this space.
takes place at The Arts Theatre, London, from now to 5 March 2016
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