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Ken Bloom

Producer & Historian

Ken Bloom is a leading authority on American popular song and musical theatre. His books American Song, Hollywood Song, and Tin Pan Alley are seminal works, documenting over 300,000 songs.

His Broadway: An Encyclopedic Guide to the History, People and Places of Times Square was named one of the top reference books of the year by The New York Times and has recently come out in an updated third edition. His Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, written with Frank Vlastnik, won the American Library Association’s prestigious George Freedley Memorial Award.

Bloom's newest book, Show and Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes, was released by Oxford University Press earlier this fall.

In addition to his work as a writer, Bloom has served as on-air talent for outlets as diverse as Sirius Satellite Radio, WKCR-FM, NPR, and the CBC. And as president of the 33-year-old Harbinger Records, which he co-founded with Bill Rudman, Ken has produced more than fifty albums, including the Grammy-nominated Maxine Sullivan Sings Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

May
19

Top Ten Books for Musicals

Wow! This is a really tough one. In fact, it’s impossible. But here’s my list of more than ten libretti – some from the far past, some from mid-century and some from today. All of which keep the audience involved and have humor, drama, and realistic characters. Beyond that these shows’ songs and scripts compliment each other perfectly, making a beautiful whole.

First on my list is Show Boat. Yes, it’s ungainly especially at the end when the passage of time has to be sped up to the then-present. Edna Ferber’s book is huge and making the many episodes and characters into a three-hour show is a bitch.  But along the way, Oscar Hammerstein showed how a musical could be perfectly integrated and speak to larger societal issues. Heck, Hammerstein even makes the Mississippi River a character in the show. In the right hands it might just be the most emotional musical ever written. And Hammerstein also deserves credit for the second place musical:

Carousel. Of course, it’s difficult to separate the book from the score they’re so perfectly integrated. But each element, while seemingly simple, speaks to great emotions. And the characters are true and complicated even if sometimes our political correctness demands all edges be sanded down to make us comfortable. But it’s Hammerstein’s point to keep the edges and, like in all his musicals, develop characters that are flawed but have the power to be redeemed.

Speaking of redemption, Gypsy has the most powerful punch; in it a character finds herself stripped bare and acknowledging her own truth and coming to acceptance. It’s often cited as the greatest musical libretto of all time and that may be true. Women who have played the title role like Merman, Lansbury, and others make it look easy, but it’s an incredibly difficult part to do well. A gorgon who reveals the insecurities and needs she has inside.

In the above musicals characters come to a realization and either actually change or consider change and reject it. My Fair Lady probably has the most impressive about-faces in the theatre. Eliza Doolittle is literally changed from a “guttersnipe” into a presentable upper-class woman. But the teacher also changes, and Henry Higgins finds his own humanity, and even though at the end of the show he asks Eliza to fetch his slippers, the audience knows that he has come to terms with himself also.

Prejudices are also overturned in Guys and Dolls, perhaps the second runner-up in the best libretto race. Sister Sarah is prejudiced against gambler Sky Masterson, but each is open enough to slowly see the humanity and even insecurities of each other (even if a few rums help to loosen pre-determined prejudices). This show has abundant humor, true emotions, and leaves the audience in a state of bliss. Come to think of it, Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s book for The Music Man has a lot in common with Guys and Dolls. A gambler/conman loosens up a prim Salvation Army girl/librarian.

And for pure humor with no pretension of greater good, no message, characters that don’t change essentially our vote goes to On the Twentieth Century. Especially the original production, which under the direction of genius Harold Prince, roared down the tracks in a barrage of humor. Hand it to the great Betty Comden and Adolph Green for scribing a hilarious farce. And speaking of Betty and Adolph their other scripts for On the Town and Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing, etc., etc. are also hilarious, realistic (true!), and emotional.

Before we get to some shows that are currently playing here’s our vote for the most unusual great script – 1776.  Really – a  musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Strong characters, real drama, important issues like slavery, and something no other musical has had in such abundance: suspense. Yes, we already know the outcome but if it’s a really good production we actually have our doubts as the pages on the calendar on the wall slip away.

Now I’m may be an old curmudgeon but there are three terrific libretti currently on Broadway.

Translating the novel Wicked for the musical theatre was, like Show Boat, a humongous task, and Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work distilling the immense plot into a clear, entertaining musical that still carried a powerful message for the audience. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s one of the few musicals in which the book is better than the score…which is rare.

The Book of Mormon seems to have nothing on its mind but to make us laugh. Yes, it can be somewhat scatological and religiously impertinent and though it’s completely in the South Park mode with plenty of subversive, and often raunchy humor, its greatest accomplishment is its underlying heart, which carries a real emotional punch. To the audience’s surprise they actually care for characters that they thought were only caricatures.

Dear Evan Hansen is the most recent great book of a musical. When was the last time you saw a show and really and truly couldn’t figure out how the heck the authors were going to wrap up the story? That they do so with such skill, logic and audience satisfaction is an admirable thing. And they have a wonderful score, production, and strong cast to carry the remarkable story forward.

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May
05

Betty Comden

During the 1950s and ‘60s the preeminent lyricist-librettists-screenwriters of the musical theatre were Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Their film scripts include what is considered by many to be the greatest film musical, Singin’ in the Rain. They were also responsible for other MGM blockbusters such as On the Town, The Band Wagon, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Good News., and many more MGM blockbusters.

And their Broadway output as authors and lyricists is just as impressive. From their debut with 1944’s On the Town to their last show, The Will Rogers Follies, in 1991, their output is unsurpassed. Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, Hallelujah, Baby!, Applause, and On the Twentieth Century are just some of the great musicals they wrote. And they wrote with the best songwriters, primarily Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and Cy Coleman.

Comden and Green met every day in Betty’s apartment whether they had something to work on or not. They also made time to appear on Broadway and in regional theatres in their two-person career retrospective, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

And their shows spawned many a hit song. Think of “New York, New York,” “If,” “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “Make Someone Happy,” “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.”

But they weren’t hit writers per se. They wrote for characters and situations. Which is why the songs that weren’t played on the Hit Parade were every bit as good as their better-known songs.

Their output was marked by humor and heart and that’s why their shows and their songs will be sung and revived for generations to come.

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Apr
21

Jerry Herman

The Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart musical smash hit Hello, Dolly! is opening at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway and that got us thinking about Jerry’s shows and why they have such lasting appeal:

  1. Jerry is in love with the main characters in his shows. There’s no snark or condescension in his treatment of his characters. They’re human like the rest of us; usually looking for their place in the world, which includes finding love and giving love, too. Think of such songs are “I Will Follow You” in Milk and Honey, “If He Walked into My Life” in Mame, and “Ribbons Down My Back” in Hello, Dolly!
  2. He writes humorous songs better than anyone else. One of the musical theatre’s funniest songs is “It Takes a Woman” in Dolly. And not only is every line really funny but it perfectly sums up the character of Horace Vandergelder. “Chin Up Ladies” in Milk and Honey is another example of Jerry’s fondness for his characters  expressed in a funny way.
  3. Jerry’s characters may have obstacles in their search for fulfillment but they have an unswerving optimism and belief that everything will work out in the end. The most iconic of these is when Mame sings, “It’s Today.” There’s a story behind that song that perfectly describes Jerry’s upbringing. One day the young Jerry came home from school only to find the house festively decorated. He asked his mother what was the occasion and she answered, “It’s today!!” That was a remarkably important moment in Jerry’s life and one he never forgot. In fact, throughout his life, Jerry has lived by that philosophy.
  4. The “villains” in Jerry’s shows are treated with bemusement. One thing Jerry has never tolerated with his friends is an overly developed self-importance. From Vandergelder to the Connecticut Uptons in Mame to the homophobic in-laws in La Cage Aux Folles, they’re all treated with an understanding and they all get their comeuppance in hilarious ways.
  5. Jerry is as fine a lyricist as any of the Broadway greats but he never draws attention to either the hard work behind the easy, conversational lyrics or flights of tortured, showoff rhymes that celebrate
  6. The characters in a Herman show have real doubts and insecurities. And much of the drama of his shows comes with insecurities. “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Hymn to Hymie” in Milk and Honey, and “I Don’t Want to Know” in Dear World perfectly illustrates human needs.
  7. His shows are known for their big title songs and splashy set pieces but the things that make these shows classics is the emotion behind the characters. Yes, “Before the Parade Passes By” is both an anthem for Dolly that evolves into a grand production number but it’s songs like “Ribbons Down My Back” that give the shows their heart. And it’s that heart and love of humanity flaws and all that make Jerry’s shows unique in musical theatre history.
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Apr
07

Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline has returned to Broadway in a production of Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre, the same theatre in which he became a star. The show was On the Twentieth Century, and its great artistic success was not a sure thing.

Its star Madeline Kahn was having personal problems, and so right after the opening, she was fired and, in the best tradition of 42nd Street, the understudy moved into the lead role and she herself became a star. Judy Kaye had been in shows before, but this one allowed her to capitalize on all her talents, and she was hailed by audiences and critics alike. Now don’t get us wrong, many people who saw Kahn’s performance preferred her to Judy Kaye. But it was the offstage difficulties that made her continuing in the role impossible.

So, Twentieth Century had not one but two “discoveries,” and with Broadway veterans John Cullum and Imogene Coca to round out the leads, what could have been a disaster became a hot ticket. And the entire cast was ably supported by a superior score by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green as well as fast-paced direction by Harold Prince and one of the greatest and most stylish of all Broadway sets designed by Robert Wagner at the peak of his many talents.

And now, many years later, with successful films and stage appearances behind him, Kevin Kline has proven he’s the real thing and his bravura performance in Present Laughter proves just how  perfectly he balances the verbal and physical demands of Noel Coward’s perfect farce.

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Mar
24

Spring!

Well, you wouldn’t know it here based on recent weather on the East Coast but Spring has arrived (or so they tell us).

Which got us to thinking of shows (The Day Before Spring) and songs that mention this time of year. Spring is symbolic of new beginnings but Larry Hart’s lyric to Richard Rodgers’ music for the song “Spring Is Here” (from I Married an Angel) is a melancholy one. In typical Hart fashion, the arrival of spring is a disappointment with nothing going right in the romance department. Frank Loesser struck the same tone in the 1944 movie musical Christmas Holiday when he penned, “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” which you can check out in any number of cover versions including Sarah Vaughan's.

E.Y. Harburg was especially attuned to the yin and yang of the seasons and for him Spring meant nature’s sap starting to rise, if you know what we mean. And that brings us to Flahooley’s “The Springtime Cometh.” Lust was also in the breeze for the citizens of Camelot. Alan Jay Lerner was no stranger to love—he was married eight times!. Lerner, with composer Frederick Loewe, celebrated “The Lusty Month of May.”

And Lerner also joined forces with Kurt Weill to celebrate life reborn in “Green-Up Time” in the sadly seldom performed Love Life. It’s tops on many people’s list of most wanted revival or at least concert version, and if you would like to hear this song performed check out a version delivered by Weill's wife Lotte Lenya. Similarly Cole Porter’s plainly named, “I Love You” (Mexican Hayride) is best known for its lyric, “It’s Spring again. And birds on the wing again. Start to sing again. That old melody…” Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer wrote “Spring, Spring, Spring” for the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and, wouldn’t you know it, after a long winter stuck indoors the seven brides and the seven brothers found themselves tending to babies.

And speaking of new growth, human or otherwise, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific features a novel way to profess love with the song, “Younger Than Springtime.” In the 1921 musical Bombo Al Jolson introduced one of this biggest hits, the Louis Silvers and B.G. DeSylva paean to Spring, “April Showers.”

The one song that we can think of that has Spring in the title but has nothing to do with Spring comes from Mel Brooks' The Producers: “Springtime for Hitler.”

Whether your Spring is renewing, bittersweet, or romantic we hope you have a wonderful Spring.

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Mar
10

John Kander

John Kander is turning 90 years old, and he’s still at it with a new show at the Vineyard Theatre in New York and working on another new musical. Many of his contemporaries are also refusing to rest on their impressive laurels and are continuing to write new works for the theatre. Stephen Sondheim, Charles Strouse, Sheldon Harnick, Tom Jones, and others still have the musical theatre bug and are looking forward rather than backward.

But of all these greats who found their first successes in the late ‘50s and early 1960s, John Kander is the most reticent to crow about his past accomplishments. He’s always looking forward to the next project even as the revival of Chicago shows no signs of ever closing. His new work with collaborator Greg Pierce is quite unlike the show biz razzmatazz of his work with lyricist Fred Ebb. His new scores are minimalist jewels with sometimes complete songs and at other times short musical accents to the scenes. It’s even more remarkable than the difference in Richard Rodgers’ music when he transitioned from working with Lorenz Hart to Oscar Hammerstein II. There’s still recognizable Kander motifs running through his new shows like the current Kid Victory, there’s no doubt that he’s the composer. His aesthetic runs through every note but it’s a quieter, more insightful, more character-driven way of composing.

Of course, we all love the Kander and Ebb era, and this newest turn in his talents are an apt coda to one of Broadway’s greatest composers.

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Feb
24

A week off...

Recent Grammy Award-winner Ken Bloom (he picked up the prize for the liner notes to the album Sissle & Blake Sing 'Shuffle Along') has been traveling out of the country. He will return with a new column on March 10.

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Feb
10

LOVE!!

Ah love! Characters both human and otherwise have long sung the glories of love. But it’s a tricky subject for lyricists. Oscar Hammerstein II was a firm believer that one should write the words “I Love You” in a song. That would be too easy and a cliché also. So he wrote songs like, “If I Loved You” from Carousel.

Cole Porter did write a song titled “I Love You” for Mexican Hayride, but he also wrote “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top” for Anything Goes. He also wrote “Do I Love You?” for DuBarry Was a Lady, and audiences knew the answer as soon as the question was asked. (To take a listen to this one, take a listen to Colleen McHugh's Prêt-à-porter). And another list song by Porter, “Let’s Do It” from the musical Paris and sung to great effect at one point by Ella Fitzgerald, suggests that two people can will themselves into falling in love.

It’s the same thing for Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks “Do I Love You?” Bock and Harnick and the audience knew what the answer would be. However, in one production, when Zero Mostel couldn’t stop fooling around with the woman playing Golde he asked, “Do You Love Me” and she answered, “I’m not sure” and walked off the stage!

And when someone protests too much about love in a musical comedy you know they’re deluding themselves. In Two Gentlemen of Verona (an underrated score by the way) when Diana Davila’s character sang Galt McDermott and John Guare’s “I Am not Interested in Love,” she wasn’t fooling the audience or herself. The same goes for “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today” from the Gershwins’ Treasure Girl. And the same goes for Norman Wisdom and Louise Troy when they sang, “I Don’t Think I’m in Love” in Walking Happy. And who was Babe kidding when she sang “I’m not at All in Love” in The Pajama Game.

But not all characters in musicals are in love with love. Some love other things equally well. The Sound of Music’s Maria Von Trapp loved kittens with whiskers when she listed “My Favorite Things.” And in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown Snoopy loved nothing more than “Suppertime.”

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Jan
27

Mavericks...Then AND Now

This week’s theme is Mavericks in Musicals. So, I thought I’d concentrate on the shows themselves and how they broke out of the ordinary and found success.

If we look back at some big hit musicals, it isn’t just that they were good that accounts for the great success but also because they were unique. Of course, in true Broadway and Hollywood tradition, these successes were then followed by inferior copies. One thing the mavericks have in common is they were written from the heart without thoughts of becoming smash hits.

The first of the Mavericks was the Follies of 1907. Producer Florenz Ziegfeld was so struck by the Folies Bergere in Paris, he decided to present a similar show in New York, but without the nude showgirls. You know, showgirls got their name because they didn’t sing, didn’t dance, didn’t speak, and not because they were in a show. They were there strictly to look beautiful and show themselves in beautiful, if somewhat skimpy, costumes. Anyway, Ziegfeld’s show was an immediate success. The songs had topicality like, “I Don’t Want an Auto,” “I Think I Oughtn’t Auto Any More,” “Budweiser’s a Friend of Mine,” “Cigarettes,” and “The Man Who Built the Subway.” There were also provocative songs for the showgirls to strut their talents, “The Fencing Girl,” and “The Gibson Bathing Girls.” There were also suggestive songs like, “If We Knew What the Milkman Knows.” The Follies gave birth to imitators like The Passing Shows, The Winter Garden Shows, George White’s Scandals, and Earl Carroll’s Vanities. But it was the Follies of 1907 that was the maverick.

Oklahoma! doesn’t seem very radical now but at the time it surprised audiences. There was no opening number, just a farmhouse, an old woman churning butter, and a lone cowboy setting the scene with the song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” There was no Ruritanian romance, no double entendres, and relatively simple scenery. The latter was partially due to the war effort where materials were hard to get. Oh, and a secondary character was killed! Furthermore, the plot really didn’t matter as much as the patriotism of early settlers who founded a territory that would by curtain falls become a state.

In more modern times, Hair rocked Broadway and changed it forever. Seeing revivals of the show now could never have the cataclysmic effect of the original production. Hippies were looked down upon by the majority of the population. The country was torn apart by the war in Vietnam. And drugs, interracial sex, draft-dodging, etc. were all divisive subjects and certainly never heard on any stage. Hair, with its hit songs that were decidedly not your usual pop ballads, was a major cultural event. And the cast of performers were not just acting roles, they actually lived them off the stage also. It was a gigantic political statement that helped change the course of history.

When March of the Falsettos opened at Playwrights’ Horizon, William Finn’s work shocked people much in the way Hair did for a previous generation. Here’s a married man who has a lover on the side… who is a man! And the wife is having an affair with the family’s therapist. Songs like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” really shook up the crowds flocking to the theatre. Jason, the son sings, “My Father Is a Homo.” It’s a far cry from “We Kiss in a Shadow.” Like Hair, Falsettos opened up a whole underground world for theatergoers. And William Finn’s conversational, unconventional songs presaged a Broadway whose scores would be further and further away from Broadway pop ballads.

Company
Here’s what is what later would be called the “concept musical.” There’s no real plot, exactly. Rather a series of scenes and songs around a theme: being single, companionship, and marriage. This show made possible a whole series of concept shows that saw its culmination with A Chorus Line. And in such a show, there’s usually not a star. (Though in the case of Company Dean Jones—and later Larry Kert—had the lead they weren’t really stars, and it turned out that Elaine Stritch did stand out with her showstopper “The Ladies Who Lunch.”) The company of Company were all equals equally served by the songs by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s libretto.

Mamma Mia!
Like it or not, Mamma Mia! really changed the theatre as the first smash hit “juke box musical.” Yes, there had been musical revues around a single composer’s output. They ran the gamut from the lows of the Frank Loesser revue Perfectly Frank to the heights of Ain’t Misbehavin’. But Mamma Mia! took the top pop hits of ABBA and jammed them into a ridiculous script. But it was the songs people came to hear. Folks from New Jersey and beyond didn’t care about the drama they came for a heady does of musical nostalgia. There’s been a plethora of juke box musicals since but Mamma Mia is the greatest.

Avenue Q
A puppet show masquerading as a satire of a children’s television show. When you first heard that did you think it would become one of the theatre’s longest running shows? Admit it. It sounded like a terrible idea. The kind of show where you’re sitting around laughing and throwing ridiculous ideas around and then dismiss them when you sober up. Well, Avenue Q hasn’t been copied but it’s still running, albeit in a smaller Off-Broadway theatre. And it’s been produced all over the world. I saw a company do it in Paris. What do you think the French thought of it? Well, I can tell you it didn’t last very long.

Andrew Lloyd Webber
To conclude, we salute Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yes, that’s right. Do you know any show as original and audacious as Cats? How about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? A rock version of a Bible story? No, not Two By Two. Joseph was audacious for its time. Those of us who are old enough to remember when it first premiered and religious zealots picketed calling the show an abomination before God. Now, every school and church group seems to mount a production of Joseph. And Lloyd Webber and his early partner Tim Rice deserve another mention. They invented the concept album that would eventually become the score of a major London musical. Yes! Another milestone—a successful British musical. Take one of your hands and count along. 1. Oliver! 2. Half a Sixpence. Um, that’s it. Not a lot of British musicals had made a big splash moving from the West End to Broadway before Lloyd Webber. And he had lots of them (till The Woman in White, that is). And even now with a very conventional musical, School of Rock, Lloyd Webber is back on Broadway with a show unlike anything he’s written before.

Finally, we come to Hamilton. You must have known that was coming. It’s unique and it’s a smash. But will we have more historical rap musicals with colorblind casting? Only time will tell.

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Jan
13

Triskaidekaphobia....

DO YOU SUFFER FROM TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA?

Don’t be ashamed. Since the 18th Century millions of Americans have suffered from this strange mental illness.  Are you going to stay under the covers shivering when you wake up on Friday? Will you answer your phone? Will you read your email?

Don’t despair. It’s not too late. We are here to offer a surefire cure. Though you may suffer from the fear of Friday the 13th this malady can be treated with melody. That’s right. Go to your computer, phone or tablet and make yourself a Triskaidekaphobia playlist. It’ll be sure to chase those Friday the 13th blues away.

Here’s actual testimony from actual fictional sufferers who stood up straight, put their shoulders back and accepted good luck. And by repeating their mantras you too can change your point of view for the best.

Sky M. from the sewers of Broadway prayed that “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” and his positive energy worked. Sarah B. went on a romantic voyage to Cuba with him.

A young man from St. Louis known only as Li’l Augie was a gambler and like Sky M. spent time betting on horses and dice. But he had spirit and he proclaimed, “I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down.” And his positive thinking made him lucky and only a few acts later he was “Ridin’ on the Moon.”

M. Bramleigh, with an assist by two brothers with the name Gershwin, affirmed that he was the “Luckiest Man in the World.” No longer did he have to make excuses to people by saying “Pardon My English.” He had nothing to be ashamed of.

A young girl in the French West Indies who went under the name Violet (not her real name) believed that a sleepin’ bee held in the palm of her hand would bring her romance. And it did! We have verified proof that it worked for her, and it will also work for you. She dreamt of a “House of Flowers,” and wouldn’t you know it, her wish was granted.

Maybe you know someone who is down on his luck like one of four brothers who toured in vaudeville under the iron hand of his stage mother. He moped around complaining “Where Was I When They Passed Out Luck?” If only his mother Minnie had loved him and told the boy “You’re Lucky to Me” like a lucky Blackbird announced in 1928, that young man might have found happiness.

Our guaranteed plan worked for them and it will work for you. Don’t worry who’s around or who might hear you as you walk around singing about the power of positive thinking and you will change your attitude, your luck and perhaps even the spirits of those around you.

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