“Some Kind of Obsession”
At 11 years old and in the wake of his parents’ bitter divorce, Manhattan native Stephen Sondheim was shuffled off to live with his mother in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This dark period in the burgeoning musician’s life changed course when he befriended Jimmy Hammerstein, the son of the legendary Broadway composer (and soon-to-be mentor to Sondheim), Oscar, and a fellow cinephile. The two spent their summers watching every movie that came to town, and soon, Sondheim’s dramaturgical sensibility was inseparable from cinematic language: flashbacks and narration, cutaways and fade-ins and fade-outs, perspective and distortion. Broadway had yet to integrate this vocabulary into its repertoire, but these formative artistic experiences armed Sondheim with many of the tools that later helped him marry filmic techniques with musical theater.
Sondheim the Cinephile
Sondheim developed a sophisticated cinematic taste, ranging from American noir and melodrama to various foreign film movements. As an adolescent, he was particularly swept up in the dark and twisted worlds of women-centric psychological dramas — such films were so ingrained in his childhood that his mother’s second marriage only stood out in his memory because All About Eve opened at the Roxy the same day. One of his earliest cinematic loves was the classic noir Hangover Square, a lust- and blood-riddled tragedy about a mentally unhinged musician, that provided ample room for composer Bernard Herrmann to inject the score with euphuistic romanticism. Sondheim was so inspired that he wrote a fan letter to Herrmann inquiring whether the music would be recorded, and eventually paid homage to the composer’s dramatic style through Sweeney Todd.
It wasn’t until 1947, however, that Sondheim saw how he could integrate his cinematic and musical mindsets. The seventeen-year-old witnessed firsthand the development of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro — a sweeping biography of a Midwestern doctor with moralistic overtones about the foibles of fame and fortune. Sondheim was a gofer on the project, allowing him ample opportunity to observe director Agnes de Mille’s staging and the overall collaborative process. Although Allegro was a critical and popular failure, it marked a groundbreaking shift in how musicals were conceived and presented. The innovative staging featured a mobile, S-shaped curtain that allowed for simultaneous narratives, as well as more active use of its ensemble. “Right away I accepted the idea of telling stories in space, of skipping time and using gimmicks like the Greek chorus,” Sondheim remembered. “It was a set of dissolves, a series of dissolves. Nobody ever thought of doing it before [in musical theater].” The sheer act of bearing witness to failure was also formative: “That’s why I’m drawn to experiment. I realize that I am trying to recreate Allegro all the time.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein left Allegro and its negative reviews behind to inject their newfound experimental style into South Pacific, which built on the filmic techniques of Allegro (fade-outs, crosscut scenes, and dissolving transitions) but with a much more coherent book and score. Sondheim, meanwhile, spent his young adult years exploring the world behind the camera more directly. In 1953, he worked as a clapper boy on the set of John Huston’s Beat the Devil, during which time he purportedly played chess with Humphrey Bogart and poker with producer David O. Selznick himself. The same year, he co-wrote TV screenplays with George Oppenheimer. Sondheim’s love of film bled into his brief small-screen career, most notably in the Topper episode “George’s Old Flame,” which features a matronly film diva as one of its supporting characters.
A few years later, Sondheim put his vast knowledge of film history and technique on display as a critic for Films in Review, one of the first publications to seriously analyze motion pictures. Sondheim’s critical portfolio demonstrates an already refined understanding of style, tone, world-building, and structure. He interrogates Dial M For Murder within the context of its source material and Hitchcock’s larger oeuvre, for instance, and his piece on Guys and Dolls notes the disconnect between tone and design. Even this early in his career, Sondheim understood the challenges of adapting a story from one medium to another and the importance of cohesive, action-driven storytelling — skills that would inform his own artistic output in years to come.
Sondheim obviously settled on musical theater as his day job, but he returned to the big screen for periodic projects throughout his professional career. In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila, a murder mystery about a Hollywood producer with a nasty revenge plot up his sleeve. The film received positive reviews, including a nod from Roger Ebert: “Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins… exhibit a very fine eye for showbiz behavior and dialog.” Sondheim also wrote partial and full scores for the silver screen, including Stavisky (1974), Dick Tracy (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). He went public as a film buff when invited to be a guest director for the 2003 Telluride Film Festival. Interviews about the honor revealed his impressive knowledge of film history, and he ultimately selected three films by one of his favorite filmmakers, Julien Duvivier, whose work Sondheim describes as “always one inch short of opera. It’s romantic melodrama.”
Interestingly, Sondheim has generally shied away from movie musicals: “On stage, generally speaking, the story is stopped or held back by songs, because that’s the convention. Audiences enjoy the song and the singer, that’s the point. Static action — if that’s not an oxymoron — is accepted. That’s a very tricky business on film.” Aside from Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of Sweeney Todd, lauded by Sondheim as “the first musical that has ever transferred successfully to the screen,” he has been unimpressed with film adaptations of his work and largely avoided marrying his film and theater loves, but his cinematic aesthetic permeates virtually all of his lyrics and compositions.
As early as West Side Story, Sondheim realized he had a filmmaker’s brain: “I think cinematically when I’m writing songs and I stage them… in my head. And I realize that I stage them like a movie.” Some of his songs are written with clear staging in mind, such as “The Worst Pies in London,” which uses pauses and clipped lyrics to allow for Mrs. Lovett’s bug-swatting and smashing. His songs are peppered with cutaways and simultaneous narratives, such as the overlapping stories in the opening number from Into the Woods, the collision of past and present with “Who’s That Woman?” in Follies, and the split-screen technique in “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures. Elements of noir and melodrama, the pathos and operatic nature of films by Duvivier and French poetic realists, are woven into Sondheim’s oeuvre — but nowhere are his cinematic influences more evident than in A Little Night Music and Passion.
Before diving into the musicals and their filmic roots at length, it is worth exploring the genres that inspired them: melodrama and noir. Melodrama crosses mediums, of course, but Hollywood melodrama reached its peak in the 1940s and ’50s — precisely the decades in which young Sondheim first fell in love with film. Melodramatic narration is unique in that it diverges from linearity through structural parallels, pauses in the plot, information scattered throughout the narrative, and expositional dialogue not directly related to the protagonists. The drama boils beneath the surface, with a focus on intense psychological rather than plot arcs, and suspense is built through gradual, sometimes misleading, breadcrumbs of information.
Film noir, coined as such by French film critics in the 1940s, also plays with nonlinearity and psychological drama, but through a much darker and surrealistic lens. Common themes of such films include entrapment, existential dread, and the plight of the downtrodden or wrongly accused in an uncaring world; they also often explore the darker elements of sexuality and psychological torment. Noir goes even further with structural experimentation, often using narrative, dreamlike sequences, unreliable narration, and flashbacks to play with the audience’s perspective. The genre finds conflict in chaos, so noir directors and writers often utilized surrealism to obscure traditional notions of good and evil, logic and fantasy. Although there is no concrete evidence that Sondheim’s ideas stem directly from his early cinematic influences, they likely made an impact on his aversion towards traditional storytelling: “I’m attracted to stories that present difficulties in the telling, and I’m often interested in getting away from the linear and naturalistic.”
Noir and melodramatic influences are, appropriately, prevalent in the only two Sondheim musicals to be directly adapted from movies: A Little Night Music, adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night; and Passion, adapted from Ettore Scola’s 1981 Passione d’amore, in turn adapted from Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novella Fosca. Both musicals are thematically similar interrogations of lust and love and are clearly inspired by Sondheim’s roots in melodrama and noir. To use filmic vocabulary, Night Music examines these motifs through a wide lens, commenting on the follies of romance with humor and irony. Fosca zooms in on a much smaller world, crafting a character study virtually devoid of irony and levity of any kind. The superficially similar musicals are fascinating case studies into how Sondheim manipulates his cinematic techniques to craft wildly different characters, tones, and worlds.
A Little Night Music
A Little Night Music marked a renaissance for Sondheim, who needed a smash after the financial flop of Follies — more of an Oklahoma! and less of an Allegro. He found the creative process less than fulfilling — “I suffered no sleepless nights. I wasn’t digging deep into myself” — but it was the commercial and critical success for which he and director Hal Prince hoped, resulting in a financial win and Sondheim’s second Tony for Best Musical.
On paper, A Little Night Music differs very little from its source material. Both the musical and film feature a series of interlocking love triangles that settle into harmony
over the course of a steamy summer evening. The featured couple in both stories is Desiree, the glamorous and effervescent stage actor, and her former lover Fredrik, the seemingly incompatible lawyer now married to a much younger wife. Where Smiles and Night Music truly differ is in tone. Bergman’s comedy is markedly darker than its musical adaptation, with undertones of betrayal and impermanence simmering beneath the surface of romantic fluff. A clear example of this shift is in the history between Desiree and Fredrik. In Smiles, the pair’s original affair ended bitterly and they had only five years to ruminate over their heartache before the timeline of the film begins; this results in a reunion rife with resentment, even including a slap from Desiree before they kiss and make up at the end of the film. Night Music, on the other hand, gives the pair a whopping 14-year separation, a distance that allows for nostalgia and a more mature perspective when they meet again. The musical also shifts the source of the story’s moralistic message from the servant Frid to the aristocratic matriarch Madame Armfeldt. The servants play a much smaller role in the musical as a whole, in fact, and aside from the near-final number “The Miller’s Son,” they contribute very little to the themes of the plot. In the musical, it is Madam Armfeldt who informs the audience and her granddaughter of the smiles of the summer night. This shift from servant to matriarch (and from a silent 4-year-old son to a curious 14-year-old daughter) creates opportunity for open dialogue about the follies of romance and wealth; it also emphasizes the cyclical nature of love by passing wisdom down through three generations of women.
Although Sondheim found the writing process for Night Music technically simple, the tonal shift from film to musical proved a sizable hurdle. Book-writer Hugh Wheeler’s much lighter approach to the story conflicted with Sondheim’s bent towards troubled, even unsympathetic characters:
I saw it as a darker Chekhovian musical… I usually love to write in dark colors about basic gut feelings, but Hal has a sense of audience that I sometimes lose when I’m writing. He wanted the darkness to peep through a whipped-cream surface. Whipped cream with knives. And, quite simply, I was writing for Bergman’s film, not Hugh Wheeler’s play.
This desire for a Chekhovian style is not unlike Sondheim’s beloved melodramas, in which emotional turmoil bubbles beneath a deceptively simple plot. Although a tough sell, this stylistic shift ultimately highlighted rather than detracted from the message of the play: the frothiness of tone makes the onstage infidelities and moral lapses of judgment stand out in sharp contrast, resulting in a message that is messy, nuanced, and ironic.
This isn’t to say Sondheim buried his cinematic instincts for this movie-to-stage adaptation. On the contrary, Night Music is layered with film-inspired techniques and stylistic choices, some of which directly echo those made in Allegro decades before. Although Night Music is largely linear, it regularly breaks the continuity of time and space. In fact, the original concept for the musical ignored linearity altogether: Desiree was to be the chess-master over the magical weekend, the events of which would replay three times as Madame Armfeldt shuffled her deck of cards for another alternate timeline to unfold. “The characters would then reform, waltz again, and start over. It was all to be presented like a court masque with a music-box quality,” Sondheim recalled.
Although Sondheim and Wheeler landed on a more traditional narrative structure, dilution of reality is woven throughout the musical. Nowhere is this more clear than in the songs “Now/Later/Soon,” a trio of songs that sets up the first of many love triangles, this one between Fredrik, his young wife Anne, and his sexually repressed son Henrik. The songs begin as solos, establishing each character’s separate location and conflict, but by the end their various laments intertwine into a coherent but space-defying feat of storytelling. “Liaisons” also features film-inspired cutaways between Madam Armfeldt’s recollection of her past affairs to the present affair between Desiree and Fredrik; while not a direct flashback, the song still plays with the malleability of time and space. Sondheim’s eye for cinematic storytelling created opportunities for dissolves and cutaways in the direction and design of the musical as well. According to Foster Hirsch, “Complementing the way Sondheim used music to provide quick changes in place and time, [Prince’s staging] created the effect of terse filmic cuts with moveable, transparent and fanciful screens…which veiled one group of characters while revealing another.”
Another major filmic element of Night Music, and one of the few major diversions from the source material, is the addition of the Liebeslieder (German for “love songs”) chorus: three women and two men who flit between and among scenes, commentating on the action of the play. Although some critics interpret the quintet as a representation of memory, Sondheim describes their role much more simply: “[It would be] nice to get away from the realism of the evening. I wanted something to make it a little more poetic.” Prince commented on their thematic importance as “the positive spirits in a negative household, pointing out that the foolishness of these people is not to be taken too seriously.” Ultimately, the quintet drives home the tonal shift from melodramatic comedy to cynical, surrealistic romp. The chorus also reflects Sondheim’s foray into melding the techniques of film and musical theater: Allegro was among the first musicals to utilize the Greek chorus, a concept that not only breaks conventions of time and space but also provides ample room for perspective and commentary on the narrative. In Night Music, the Liebeslieder quintet provides the crucial element of distance, creating a framing device that implies that the protagonists’ world does not, in fact, revolve around them; this emphasizes the triviality of their pathos-laden dramas and allows the musical to zoom out and examine their trysts through a broader, more critical lens.
The filmic influences behind Night Music, aside from its inception, are relatively subtle. Sondheim’s original instinct for darkness and melodrama gave way to a relatively frothy finished product, so most of the cinematic touches are found in technique rather than tone or theme. Passion, Sondheim’s other film-derived work, is contrastingly drenched in noir influences — resulting in a musical less commercially viable than its film-inspired predecessor, but certainly more stylistically innovative.
Passion is in many ways a perfect foil to Night Music. Where Night Music was a commercial success but of little artistic merit to Sondheim, Passion was one of two projects for which the composer/lyricist personally advocated (the other being Sweeney Todd). Passion is Sondheim’s Allegro: it manipulates structure and form, breaks theatrical convention, and, frankly, tends to elude popular audiences.
Passion’s plot is deceptively simple: Italian captain Giorgio is ferociously in love with the beautiful Clara, but is drawn away to a provincial military outpost where he meets the sickly, brilliant Fosca; her obsession with Giorgio sparks a dangerous love triangle, which eventually consumes both soldier and invalid. The musical opened on Broadway in 1994, starring Donna Murphy as Fosca (although it was originally written for Patti LuPone), and despite its mixed reception, became the shortest-running production to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Sondheim’s passion project (excuse the pun) began in 1983 when he was brought to tears by Scola’s Passione d’Amore in a movie theater across from Lincoln Center. The lamentable Fosca and dashing Giorgio were so cemented in his memory that he returned to the film a full decade later and managed to cajole James Lapine into adapting it for the stage. Sondheim had the novella on which the film was based, Tarchetti’s Fosca, personally translated from Italian into English, and he and the creative team drew from that text nearly as much as they did the film (the novella gained so much popularity after the musical’s Broadway premiere that it was finally mass published for English readers, this time under the more recognizable title Passion).
Scola’s film is drenched in angst, and its central female character’s tragic journey through physical and psychological traumas likely sparked nostalgic memories of Sondheim’s favorite films of his youth. Sondheim was particularly struck by Fosca’s first appearance on screen, a moment to which he refers in the commentary to the Broadway recording: “The staircase in the movie, behind those glass bricks, is what I think… really hooked me into the movie. Seeing Fosca come down and not quite see her because you just saw the shadow behind the bricks.” Both the film and musical build tension by delaying Fosca’s entrance, inundating the audience with offstage howls of torment and secondhand descriptions of her sickly appearance to make her long-awaited descent into the dining hall as satisfying as possible. Notably, in the video recording of the original Broadway production, Fosca’s epic entrance is somewhat overshadowed by one of Clara’s many love ballads; the contrast between Fosca’s shadowy descent and the blonde, bubblegum-pink-clad Clara prompts the audience to begin judging and comparing characters. Both adaptations encourage the audience to question biases and first impressions, even before they meet their protagonist: how do Fosca’s true appearance and personality compare to the sordid descriptions that precede her? These themes of projection and distortion are integral to her story, so the gothic mystery surrounding her works on both stylistic and thematic levels.
Although Passion is virtually identical to its film source in terms of plot and tone, it sharply diverges with structure — and it is here that the musical draws most heavily from the original novella. Both the book and film use the framing device of Giorgio regaling the listener with his tragic romantic saga, throwing into question his reliability as a narrator. The book never reveals the identity of Giorgio’s listener and is interwoven with letters from the love triangle’s participants. In the film, Giorgio’s audience is revealed via a twist in the final scene: the tortured hero has been speaking this entire time to a hunchbacked dwarf, who laughs at the narrator’s story before hobbling out of the pub: “A jolly story! …It would make sense if Fosca had been a great beauty, and Giorgio like me. Everyone would have understood that ‘passionate affair.’ But this way… What an absurd tale!” Given Sondheim’s love of the film, it is interesting that he and Lapine eliminate this framing device, which admittedly comes across as an on-the-nose gag on screen. The creative team pulled instead from Fosca for a structural framework.
Although Passion is technically devoid of a framing device, it is, like the novella, heavily epistolary: letters between Fosca, Giorgio, and Clara are read and sung aloud, both by the writers and recipients as well as the ensemble in echoing transitions that transcend time and space. These letters allow the audience to hear and see more of Clara, who would otherwise virtually disappear from the plot after her opening post-coitus number with Giorgio. More importantly, the letters accomplish for Passion what the Liebeslieder singers do for Night Music in how they play with perspective and emotional distance. Whereas the quintet allows the proverbial camera to zoom out on its world, the love letters zoom in on the psyches of Passion’s protagonists, creating both an intimacy between audience and characters as well as a sense of surreality. This is a world in which romantic poetry is echoed by soldiers between scenes, in which lovers transcend time and space to read and write and repeat their odes to each other. This Italian countryside is clearly not a historically accurate world — and by extension, its inhabitants cannot be trusted as truthful narrators, no matter how fervent their promises of undying love.
The musical aligns with the dreamlike universes of noir not only tonally, but structurally as well. Similarly to how Allegro broke theatrical convention to play with form, Passion plays with pacing and action. Audiences and critics were surprised there was no song list in the Broadway playbill, and the list on the original cast recording included titles as vague as “First Letter,” “Transition,” “Flashback,” and “Soldiers’ Gossip.” The one-act, intermission-free musical is purposefully repetitive, with both narrative and music. The musical is comprised of an eight-part narrative sequence that repeats three times, not counting Fosca’s flashback: in brief, Giorgio transitions from happiness to anger to passion to confrontation to resolution — again and again and again. Musical motifs repeat themselves constantly as well, in both major and minor keys. The result is thematically resonant: it provides the audience with a glimpse of Fosca’s own unrelenting obsession with Giorgio, a love that is not meant to be beautiful or healthy but rather debilitating and destructive. This cyclical structure is reminiscent of the dreamlike style of noir films, which constantly reiterate themes of despair and entrapment via distortion and surreality. The musical, like many noir films, is purposefully unpleasant: Sondheim recreates the characters’ inner turmoil through recurrent lyrics and musical beats — a brilliant if not palatable artistic feat.
Structurally, Passion also parallels noir in its use of exposition and flashbacks. Unlike in the novella and film, the musical reserves nuggets of crucial character history to reveal at particularly dramatic moments. The audience does not find out, for instance, that Clara is already married until nearly two-thirds through the musical, information delivered immediately in the novella and film. Likewise, details about Fosca’s illness are kept almost entirely ambiguous, whereas in the novella she clearly has epilepsy. The musical’s use of delayed exposition manipulates the audience’s perspective towards its characters, eliciting sympathy and revulsion at key, intentional moments.
Most prominent of these revelations is that of Fosca’s past, which is not unveiled until Giorgio has already gone through multiple iterations of their anger-to-reconciliation sequences. In the film, Fosca’s tragic history of love, betrayal, and mental/physical illness is told by Fosca’s cousin to Giorgio as they roam the countryside on horseback, very much in the present. Sondheim tells this story not through a simple flashback, but rather a multilayered, distorted lens, not dissimilar to the location-hopping technique used in Night Music’s “Now/Later/Soon.” The audience is transported to three locations and times simultaneously: the present, with Giorgio and the Colonel in the Italian countryside; the past, with Fosca’s troubled early years in her childhood home; and an ambiguous time and place in which Fosca is narrating her own story. As Steve Swayne notes, this unconventional flashback dually distorts and elucidates the characters’ worlds:
While we are fairly certain that the flashback represents an accurate picture of the past, that past is filled with enough lies and self-delusions that we may believe that the flashback has tinted the past in ways to incline it toward the present. It is not the clear-cut flashback of Hollywood but, rather, a more elastic retelling of the past that, in turn, offers more possibilities for living in the present .
As in a psychologically twisted, chaos-driven noir, Passion is not interested in answers: it intentionally muddles its timeline and universe to undercut conventional notions of love and fate.
Despite negative audience responses (the obsessive Fosca was openly booed during the Broadway run), some critics, such as David Richards, managed to tap into Sondheim’s nuanced themes and mastery of craft: “The lyric is surely one of Mr. Sondheim’s most direct and most personal. There is, you’ll notice, no face-saving wordplay, none of the old corrosive irony.” It is unsurprising that at least one critic caught glimmers of Sondheim’s personal honesty in the work, as the writing process for Passion also marked the first time the 61-year-old composer began living with someone else.
Sondheim’s relationship with the much-younger songwriter Peter Jones had a slow start, due in no small part to Sondheim’s decades-long proclivity for solitude and isolation (he didn’t give Jones his personal phone number until a full year into their relationship). He was reluctant at times to express his love for Jones, but realized the depth of his feelings whenever his lover left for an extended period of time: “And I got catatonic!… I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror after a shower and thought, Gee, what am I losing weight for? I want to die!” Despite these rocky beginnings, the relationship lasted eight years, at some point during which Sondheim presented Jones with a particularly sentimental anniversary gift: the framed title page of Passion, dedicated to Jones.
Melodrama, Noir, Romance, and Identity
Structurally, Night Music and Passion demonstrate Sondheim’s keen eye for cinematic staging. They are rife with flashbacks and time-jumps, cutaways and dissolves; both are period pieces steeped in fantasy and surrealism, and both employ distancing narrative techniques to question the reliability of the storytelling itself.
Where the two movie-inspired musicals differ most is in their adherence to their respective filmic genres. Night Music has roots in melodrama and even fantasy, but ultimate tonal choices align it more closely with conventional musical theater narratives. Passion, on the other hand, has noir in its bones, evident in everything from its existentialist themes to its sexually and psychologically tormented characters. The result is two musicals surprisingly similar in plot but completely divergent in tone — and by extension, audience reception. Although Sondheim’s cinematic brain permeates virtually all of his musicals, Night Music and Passion exemplify how one artist can create antipodal works reflective of his personal and artistic investment. It is a testament to Sondheim’s versatility as a creator that he invests such a degree of craft in not only his artistic and personal projects, but his commercially viable projects as well.
Since Passion premiered in 1994, Sondheim’s artistic output has slowed somewhat, so it is difficult to draw a South Pacific parallel for his Allegro. It is notable, however, that his 1999 musical Road Show, while not received particularly well, was his first work to feature an openly gay character. Sondheim has also become more open to queer interpretations of his 1970 work Company, including giving his blessings to a 2003 Roundabout reading of the updated script and an upcoming West End production with a female Bobby. There is no direct evidence that Sondheim’s emotional investment in Passion opened doors for these more personally resonant projects, but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. For an artist of such legendary renown, both critical and commercial, it is notable that one of his most personal projects occurred so late in his career. Passion, like Sondheim’s own first love, is full of ugliness and sorrow, but also an emotional integrity. The musical reflects Sondheim as both a cinephile and sudden romantic — and, perhaps, marks a renaissance in his integration of film technique, music theater convention, and identity.
Maegan Clearwood is a dramaturg, educator, and journalist with roots in Maryland/DC and branches in beautiful New England. Selected dramaturgy credits: TAME., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Holiday Memories (WSC Avant Bard); Lizzie: The Musical (Pinky Swear Productions); A Bid to Save the World (Rorschach Theatre); Static (Source Festival); World Builders (Forum Theatre); I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, Colossal (Olney Theatre Center). As a critic and arts columnist, her work has appeared in On Stage Blog, Howlround, and DC Theater Scene. BA in Drama and English from Washington College. http://mclearwood2.wixsite.com/clearwood
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