Review: Artificial Flavors Tasks AI with Composing a Musical

The Civilians return with a bold theatrical experiment.

Ayson Celik, Heath Saunders, Colleen Werthmann, Michael Castillejos, Trey Lyford, and Jennifer Morris star in the Civilians’ Artificial Flavors, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)

Can artificial intelligence write a new musical? This is the question driving Artificial Flavors, the latest onstage investigation from The Civilians, which is now debuting at 59E59. It’s the second major off-Broadway fling with AI this season, following Annie Dorsen’s Prometheus Firebringer, and it is by far the most provocative experiment currently taking place on a New York stage.

The piece is aptly named, with Civilians artistic director Steve Cosson giving us a taste of the AI products currently available to the public during the first half of the evening (Cosson plays host throughout). There’s of course ChatGPT, a product some of your coworkers may already be employing to compose bland and repetitive e-mails. But there’s also DALL-E, which can generate visual art in mere seconds. Based on audience suggestions, Cosson asked it to create an image of Tina Turner with broccoli fingers painted in the style of Pablo Picasso. It looked more like a Munch to me, but it still arrived 10 second later, projected on the upstage wall (frequently horrifying video design by Attilio Rigotti).

Steve Cosson in The Civilians' ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS at 59E59 Theaters, Photo by Richard Termine
Steve Cosson created and hosts the Civilians’ Artificial Flavors at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)

Cosson also introduces us to his chatbot, “Aging Homosexual,” which is purportedly based on himself, although more constrained by the guardrails currently implemented by tech firms and their lawyers. Unlike anyone I know fitting the demographic profile his name suggests, Aging Homosexual is polite, with scrupulously inoffensive politics, and is positively terrified of sex (this becomes painfully apparent when the real Cosson starts hitting on him). In essence, he’s a reflection of upper-middle-class liberal American values not as they actually are, but as a team of consultants would like you to think they are. Truly thrilling art pierces that veneer, which is something AI is currently restrained by its human masters from doing.

A small troupe of actors (Michael Castillejos, Aysan Celik, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Heath Saunders, and Colleen Werthmann) join Cosson for the second half of the show, in which ChatGPT is asked to compose a short musical, again based on audience suggestions, ensuring that the Civilians have no time to prepare. The material is shared with the performers through tablet scripts, which they hold through this impromptu staged reading. It’s a bit like Whose Line Is It Anyway? with computers.

The night I attended, the result was a show that would have fit right in during the high period of NYMF. Despite its somewhat surreal premise, the plot about a pie-baking contest at a vacation resort that is protected by a magical underground heart offered little in the way of dramatic build-up, much less catharsis. The music, which is improvised each night by music director Dan Lipton, was tuneful, if forgettable, the highlight being a duet ballad complete with bridge and key change (I would have been interested to hear what an AI music-generating program would have come up with, if such a thing is possible). Some of the word choices (like the notion that every human relationship is a “pact”) were just downright bizarre. Although frankly, I’ve seen worse.

Michael Castillejos, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Heath Saunders, Colleen Werthmann and Ayson Celik in The Civilians' ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS at 59E59 Theaters, Photo by Richard Termine
Michael Castillejos, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Heath Saunders, Colleen Werthmann, and Ayson Celik appear in the Civilians’ Artificial Flavors, created and directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)

Lipton not only instantly writes the music and accompanies the cast (everyone works double-duty as actor-musicians), but he underscores the first part of the evening like a veteran lounge pianist, able to plunk out relevant pop songs at a moment’s notice. Sean Donovan skillfully directs the movement, which is itself AI-generated based on the previous work of John Jacobson. The set (by Casaboyce) suggests a talk show and is versatile enough to transform into anything it needs to be, which changes from night to night. Emily Rebholz costumes the actors like a flight crew about to embark on a dangerous mission — which they are.

Sightreading a new musical in front of a paying audience is a terrifying endeavor for any actor, but the cast of Artificial Flavors valiantly rises to the occasion (some more on key than others). Saunders (who is credited with vocal arrangements alongside Lipton) seems particularly at ease interpreting this material on the fly, although the actor occasionally betrays a subtle judgment of the ungainly lyrics and dialogue with closed eyes and a small shake of the head.

It’s fun to laugh at the inartful output of AI as it bungles through its awkward adolescence, but this technology is nowhere near its developmental endpoint. Once AI learns how to craft dramatic tension and actually produces a great play, will we still be laughing? Will we even be able to admit it?

Artificial Flavors leaves us to ponder that sour hypothetical — the realization of which I expect we will have to confront sooner than we want to.


UPDATE (10/30): A previous version of this review mistakenly credited AI with the music composition. It is, in fact, improvised by Dan Lipton and the cast. The review has been updated to reflect this. 


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Artificial Flavors

Closed: November 19, 2023