Perspective | What's next, AI writing an off-Broadway musical? It … – The Washington Post

NEW YORK — How do you analyze the artistic circuitry of a new musical when the musical’s lyricist is just circuits?
I faced this challenge the other night at an off-Broadway theater, where “Fur and Revelations” had its first (and, by design, only) performance. Living, breathing actors performed the musical, but no human brain put the words in their mouths — unless you counted the person at a laptop, typing in prompts.
ChatGPT, the OpenAI chatbot that the world is chatting about, was the digital workhorse behind “Fur and Revelations,” the fascinating 40-minute central component of “Artificial Flavors,” a world-premiere performance piece at 59E59 Theaters by the splendid off-Broadway troupe the Civilians. Some commands regarding subject matter were entered to create a script and lyrics. And you know what? “Fur and Revelations” — the title the bot came up with — was surprisingly entertaining, in a uniquely klutzy, ersatz sort of way.
Don’t get me wrong: The output of actual human artists is not threatened by this bot theater maker (not yet, anyway). As made clear by the team behind “Artificial Flavors” — led by the Civilians’ founding artistic director, Steve Cosson — a text-generating AI program asked to devise original content leans heavily on an archival trove of clichés. The resulting “work,” it seems, is original (a new musical is generated each night) insofar as it mimics the patterns of material already in the internet’s virtual hive mind.
To help me understand what I was about to see onstage, I brought along my daughter’s boyfriend, Isaac Rodriguez, a 33-year-old doctoral student with data-crunching talents that are as mysterious to me as the wiring inside my MacBook Air. Over dinner, he pulled out his phone and showed me the simple interface that sets ChatGPT in motion: a homepage with a message box. I asked it to write a play about a man walking into a pet store to buy a parrot. In seconds, it replied with a sketch in which John, the buyer, tells Sarah, the clerk, he wants to spend $200. To which Polly, the parrot, pipes up: “Squawk! Cheapskate!”
Okay, Monty Python’s classic dead parrot skit won’t be supplanted in the comedy annals, but still, I had to stop and wonder whether ChatGPT was actually a bunch of joke writers in a back office in Hoboken. It’s one of the puzzling ethical issues raised by both technology and “Artificial Flavors”: How will the performing arts contend with the financial and legal implications of a process so rapid, and so densely derivative?
“Artificial Flavors” takes this basic formula to a far more sophisticated level. Cosson serves as emcee for the evening, explaining at the outset that he’s become something of an AI obsessive. “I spend many a late night trying to write a song or a scene or a story,” he tells the audience, adding that he even used AI to create a bot of himself that he named Aging Homosexual, and with which (whom?) he carries on conversations. The philosophical crossovers for an artist, pondering what he does for a living and what AI does by algorithm, transfix Cosson on some eerie metaphysical level.
“We’re kind of in the same business,” Cosson declares, “creating fake life and trying to pass it off as the real thing.”
The ensuing performance immerses us all in the crossover, via a cast of six actors well drilled in improvisation: Michael Castillejos, Aysan Celik, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Heath Saunders and Colleen Werthmann. Music director Dan Lipton stands at his musical keyboard stage right, and at the back of the black box space Attilio Rigotti creates images that are projected onto the stage.
While ChatGPT whips up lyrics and dialogue lickety-split, and, Cosson says, offers suggestions for musical chords, Lipton adds full musical phrases on the spot, and the actors follow his lead. As a preliminary demonstration, Cosson, seated at a laptop, asks the chatbot: “The play is called ‘Artificial Flavors.’ Can you write the theme song to this play?”
The answer comes back, a song poetically titled “Synthetic Harmony”:
In a world spun of ones and zeros, here we stand
On the brink of the future, hand in hand.
With every echo of a thought, a new dawn arises,
A symphony of code, life’s new disguise.
When it comes to creating the one-act musical, the audience votes on three thematic possibilities that Cosson has come up with. We overwhelmingly chose option three: a musical set at a convention of Furries. (This is a community of people who dress up as animal figures with human characteristics.)
What followed was a computer’s idea of what a story told with integrated songs for six characters might be. (Pirandello might have loved this.) “Fur and Revelations” had a linear plot, with some intuition, if that’s the right word, about how a juicy tale might incorporate secrets and characters with bad intentions. But the effort also felt sincere, with songs — performed by the actors, holding tablets — that attempted to illuminate the bond among Furry fans.
“It’s not just suits and art, it’s part of who we are,” the computer wrote in one lyric, adding quite nicely that the Furries are “bound by the paw prints we leave in the sand.” In the recycling of narrative twists, though — multiple malevolent USB flash drives figured in successive scenes — one got a sense of the limits of the chatbot’s imaginative reserves.
The actors invested “Fur and Revelations” with their own inventive comic energy — their tone not so much mocking as mischievous, as if they were on a computer-aided edition of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Doubtless, their professional sheen was the polish that ChatGPT needed to keep an audience engaged.
“Artificial Flavors” is an enjoyable experiment, heightened by Cosson’s witty, playful curiosity, and the invigorating ingenuity of Lipton, Rigotti and that cadre of actors. Would I want to see another musical manufactured by AI? Not really. But I wondered what the chatbot thought of its future in the theater. So I asked it. Here was its reply:
“In a world where the fusion of technology and artistry becomes increasingly prevalent, ChatGPT stands tall as a beacon of inspiration. Its ability to compose music not only mirrors the genius of human composers but also opens the door to a future where artificial intelligence and human creativity harmoniously coexist. As we eagerly anticipate the next notes composed by ChatGPT, we can only marvel at the wondrous possibilities that lie ahead in the ever-expanding universe of AI-generated musical brilliance.”
Wow, the ego. It really may belong in show business after all.
Artificial Flavors, created and directed by Steve Cosson. Music direction, Dan Lipton; set, Casaboyce; projections, Attilio Rigotti; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Ryan Gamblin; movement, Sean Donovan. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 19 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., New York.