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Neural networks are a kind of machine learning program modeled very loosely after the human brain. By looking at a dataset and tuning the connections between their own virtual neurons, neural networks can learn to imitate the original dataset. Powerful neural networks can do impressive things, like translate languages, recognize faces, and even describe scenes in words.

The neural networks I use, however, have the approximate processing power of an earthworm.

Granted, it’s an earthworm that has put its entire tiny brain to the sole task of learning the dataset: I’ve taught neural networks to invent cookbook recipes, name cats and guinea pigs, and even write Harry Potter fan fiction, all with some degree of success.


What would a neural network make of Broadway musicals? Thanks to lyricist Robby Sandler, we have a chance to find out. Robby pulled a list of over 10,000 Broadway plays and musicals (names, starting dates, closing dates, and total number of performances from the Internet Broadway Database, and I gave them to the open-source char-rnn framework written by Andrej Karpathy.

The first thing I noticed was the time travel.

Mh Radpor
Play, Comedy

Opening: Aep 00, 1969
Closing: Ser 30, 1917
Closing: May 11, 1922
Performance Count: 15

Santen Sos

Opening: Nov 19, 1906
Closing: Cov 19, 1907
Closing: May 29, 1923
Closing: Fec 24, 1929
Closing: Jat 19, 1927
Closing: May 1935
Performance Count: 14

Apparently, the plays produced by the neural network in its early stages were so bad that multiple teams of time travelers (or perhaps one very, very determined traveler) had to travel back in time to close them not only decades before they opened, but also retroactively in multiple alternate timelines.

One play called “The Gore” was so powerful that even closing the play 17 times over at least three timelines still resulted in 24 performances.

The Gore
Play, Comedy

Opening: May 19, 1919
Closing: Jay 19, 1920
Closing: May 19, 1922
Closing: May 19, 1924
Closing: May 19, 1932
Closing: May 19, 1919
Closing: Nov 19, 1922
Closing: May 19, 1919
Closing: Nov 19, 1927
Closing: May 19, 1925
Closing: May 19, 1927
Closing: May 19, 1922
Closing: May 19, 1917
Closing: May 19, 1932
Closing: May 19, 1925
Closing: May 19, 1925
Closing: May 19, 1921
Performance Count: 24

As the neural network progressed in its learning, the situation got less dire, but causality remained highly optional. The plays now only close once, but remain still really weird, and probably quite bad.

The Girls of Hurk
Play, Comedy
Opening: Mar 17, 1991
Closing: May 05, 1980
Performance Count: 151

Musical, Comedy
Opening: Mar 28, 1928
Closing: Nov 02, 1929
Performance Count: 133

The Wither Bean
Musical, Comedy
Opening: Sep 11, 1920
Closing: Jan 1936
Performance Count: 25

Mep and the .
Musical, Revue
Opening: Jan 04, 1906
Closing: Apr 25, 1901
Performance Count: 58

Worms and Ram
Opening: Nov 24, 1918
Closing: Feb 1919
Performance Count: 12

Is a Boot
Play, Melodrama
Opening: Feb 03, 1900
Closing: Feb 1900
Performance Count: 22

Hot Stans
Opening: Feb 17, 1943
Closing: Mar 20, 1945
Performance Count: 1

The Burking Ding of 190 Bour Dadige
Play, Comedy
Opening: Sep 24, 1929
Closing: Jan 1938
Performance Count: 55

The neural network also seemed, for mysterious reasons, to zero in on butt-related plays.

Play, Comedy
Opening: Jun 09, 1899
Closing: Nov 1906
Performance Count: 1

Play, Play with music
Opening: Feb 12, 1930
Closing: Mar 1922
Performance Count: 1

Opening: Oct 13, 1923
Closing: Apr 03, 1927
Performance Count: 23

Play, Comedy
Opening: May 14, 1907
Closing: Apr 1908
Performance Count: 12

Bun Life
Opening: Mar 06, 1995
Closing: Apr 22, 1999
Performance Count: 175

The Old Farting
Play, Melodrama
Opening: May 24, 1927
Closing: Mar 01, 1926
Performance Count: 48

And, in addition to a continuing disregard for causality, there emerged a last category of plays and musicals that seemed strangely significant.

The Siri
Opening: Nov 14, 1932
Closing: Sep 1914
Performance Count: 12

Bot Five
Play, Comedy
Opening: Oct 25, 1958
Closing: Sep 02, 1959
Performance Count: 256

The Romance of the Bot
Opening: May 14, 1923
Closing: Jun 1924
Performance Count: 109

Perhaps “bot” is simply a highly-probable English word. Perhaps “butt” is, too. Or perhaps the neural network has examined the total creative output of 100+ years of Broadway, and is letting us know what it likes best.

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