Ethnographic perspectives on commercial musical theatre works in the United States invite us to view a show’s composition, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by written and aural contributions of only one to a few creators. Yet, modern listening habits and popular music positionalities champion multi-composer contributions and collaborations, giving way to the notion of a Playlist Musical. Reflecting on interviews with Broadway creators, this project investigates power structures between creator, audience, artist and aural experiences. Multi-authored musical theatre and subsequent diverse aural anatomies shape discussions around aural associations, compositional methodologies, and remix culture, thereby disrupting musical norms.
Keywords: Playlist, jukebox, collaboration, musical theatre, Broadway
Intro to Multi-authored Work and My Definitions
The academic spotlight regarding musical theatre has been fixed on tracing the individual contributor as auteur, pitting the contributions of singular composers, lyricists and writers against each other in a false equivalency thread of historical comparison. While works such as John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “’Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America” (2016) and Maestra’s “Female Composers on Broadway: A Timeline” (2019) are essential to decolonizing our collective historical understandings, the emphasis stagnates still on the individual, leaving a gap in the ethnographic literature examining multi-composer musicals. Whereas modern cinema frequently features multiple musical contributors through orchestral scoring alongside a multi-contributor soundtrack, pivoting away from traditional singular or duo composer-lyricist teams is only emerging in theatre.
Heretofore, the only weight of the identity and number of composers collaborating on a musical stemmed from what New York Times critic Ben Brantley coined as the “jukebox musical,” wherein one or more (often famous) artist’s existing songs are interpolated into a stage show. While it is more common commercial practice to use only a singular songwriter’s work in a jukebox musical, the act of drawing on multiple artists’ song catalogues is usually, although not exclusively, relegated to a themed classification by decade, more easily palatable as explicit nostalgia rather than intentional cultural commentary (Motown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Back to the 80’s!, Cruel Intentions).
It is my contention that a delineation must be made dividing songwriting work by a singular authorial voice from multi-authored work, herein proposed as “The Playlist Musical.” This categorization will provide the space for the academic validation and subsequent analyses of multi-composer musicals as separate in their artistic intentions, merit and collaborative processes from the jukebox musical, such that works featuring previously released popular music by multiple artists also paves the way for original musicals featuring multiple composers. This study utilizes three main case study interviews to elucidate multi-composer collaborative processes: Kyle Jarrow, bookwriter of The Spongebob Musical; Justin Levine, orchestrator of Moulin Rouge!; and Chris D’Arienzo, creator of Rock of Ages. The Playlist Musical trend notionally advances a decolonizing political agenda through consumer listening habits, aural associations, compositional methodologies and remix culture, thus shedding light on how globalization and digital spaces are reshaping our creative aural expressions in multi-authored theatre-making.
Listening Habits and Musical Umami
By virtue of placing songs by different composers next to one another to form a cohesive whole, the Playlist Musical gleans its name from the popular music listening format that has dethroned the album and single in the music industry in favor of fluidity and interactivity. As a result of technological advancements, particularly the invention of mobile phones, people exert greater control than ever before over how, when and where they experience music, switching between music sources with a newfound ease that can match rapid circumstantial shifts in personal preferences on a Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) scale of listening intentions (Krause and North). Playlists allow users more control over the specific music heard in that users specify both the song content and sequence of the selected songs. While stage musical consumers have less control over song sequence set within the pre-determined rigidity of a plot, having multiple composers write one show more closely aligns with modern listening habits where “the immense quantity of popular music available digitally is promoting a culture of eclecticism, whereby people are not tied to specific genres when defining their tastes. Personal genre alliance has fallen out of favour, replaced by fluid definitions of genres and artists, that are user-driven and highly personalized and subjective” (Avdeeff 265).
The Spongebob Musical’s Kyle Jarrow leaned into this demand for eclecticism when he was brought on to write the show before any songwriter was attached:
At that point there had been one SpongeBob movie with a soundtrack of songs by all these different artists. So the eclectic-ness of that soundtrack sparked this idea of “Hey, Spongebob shifts tonally, and it really works for the movie to have all these different voices, so maybe we should try this for the stage.” There was also a business lightbulb where we realized the ask to a famous pop artist to write an individual song is so much less than the ask to develop an entire score, so we could probably get some big-name artists. It matched aesthetically with things that had already happened in the SpongeBob universe, and it made business sense.Jarrow
Viewed alongside DeNora’s assertion that people can act as “personal DJs” who are aware of what music they need to hear in different situations and at different times (46–74), musicals that employ different composers for different characters or scenes have a greater chance of matching the consumer’s expected PAD scale. Aural versatility is demanded over allegiance to one artist. The increased access to music in the digital space incites the music consumer to “collect” artists and songs as a personal archive of individualized associations able to be cherry-picked and rearranged based on individual whim and mood (Kibby). Moulin Rouge! excavates these associations from the listener through snippets of seventy songs arranged meticulously by Justin Levine:
Even if I come up with the idea [for a song mash-up] myself, I take a moment and suddenly I’m back to being that kid who would sing one song over another song on the radio, and go “wow this really works here.” So if you hear two songs at the same time, it’s not always just simply because they were lyrically or thematically similar, but also just energetically-speaking or emotionally-speaking that we could do that. . . . They work out over top of one another, so you’re hitting people with musical umami. There’s something hard to describe, but I know that that flavor really sparks something in [the listener].
Throughout the nineteenth century, theatre-makers relied on music to enhance and evoke audience emotions in melodramatic productions, inserting recognizable popular songs like “Yankee Doodle” to engage positive audience associations. Just as the modern film soundtrack borrows this technique to underscore desired emotional reactions, the Playlist Musical merges the listener’s personal aural associations of recognizable artists within a new context of the stage musical. Music in theatre or film acts as “emotional shorthand” to trigger and manipulate desired emotional reactions through style, which invokes imagery and energy to get an audience in the necessary headspace for that moment of storytelling (Levine). Whereas when artists write songs for other artists (say, Sia writing Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), it is with the intention of disguise; if well produced, the listener is focused on the performance, not the author(s). The Playlist Musical subverts this by leaning into its individual songs’ writers, playfully overlaying the actor’s performance with new meanings and associations gleaned from songwriter recognition.
The crucial aspect of the Playlist Musical is the audience’s knowledge of either the chosen existing songs or the chosen authors’ aural signatures imprinted onto new original songs. In the first vein, the power of multi-authored musicals such as Rock of Ages and Moulin Rouge that draw on existing songs lies in each of their function as a refrain, forging rhythms between their source material and new sites of articulation. Rock of Ages creator Chris D’Arienzo justifies adaptation:
My feeling is if you’re writing an original musical but doing it based on another subject, well then the book writer is doing the same thing I’m doing with the composer. You just take the other thing and you’re modifying it and using it, and so I don’t think that it’s any more of a bastardization to use other songs as it is to use another piece of literary material. I enjoy it as a writer, the Rubik’s Cube of putting those in.
Similarly, Moulin Rouge! seeks to marry the old with the new:
My goal was not to update the score, but to expand it. Most of the music I added to the score actually predates the release of the movie. Whereas yes, we definitely took advantage of the years since the film came out, we wanted to bring more music from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and so on because I wanted to expand the palette of the music. . . . In the last ten years with things like Spotify you have access to a lot more music, and musical taste has expanded with that access. So while there are Top 40s songs in the show, there were opportunities to include samples and quotes of songs that maybe weren’t as recognizable but would give a little something for everybody.Levine
Thus, the Playlist Musical allows new intertextual and personal associations wherein each member of the audience has individual and very distinct experiences and feelings when hearing existing popular songs within a fictional plot—assuming the audience recognizes the songs or artists at all. The authors of Playlist Musicals must navigate a spectrum of assumptions about their audiences, catering their song strategy to impress pop culture fans who can latch onto the additional meanings gleaned from artist recognition, while also ensuring the music selected matches the plot context for simple neophyte understanding. Much in the same way biopic jukebox musicals focus on one particular artist to draw on their existing fanbase and therefore encourage a collective memory through their song catalog, Playlist Musicals have enhanced meaning for audiences when they can invoke a “pipeline to nostalgia” and “a-ha” moments based on previous encounters of the songs (D’Arienzo).
Yet another dimension to nostalgia applies not only to the audience’s memories but also to their associations of the various composers that created the songs coloring the musical experience at hand. Whereas the above shows prey on an audience’s recognition of existing artists through their existing songs, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical (originally titled The SpongeBob Musical) produces sensory recognition based on past experiences with the given author’s repertory in new original song contexts. The show features original songs written by recognizable artists Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T. I., David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley, with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton and additional music by Tom Kitt. According to book writer Kyle Jarrow, this eclectic approach was authentic to the SpongeBob TV show and movie, where the underlying property already had a vast history of playing with form visually and sonically, which allowed the show’s creative team to nail tonal cues quickly by utilizing the myriad of artists assembled much like compiling a soundtrack roster. Curiously, this unique approach and assemblage of collaborators was barely deigned a cursory glance in Broadway reviews, relegated to nothing more than a flippant curiosity: “Oh, I forget to tell you. The show’s songs (supervised, arranged and orchestrated by the composer Tom Kitt) have been written by a plethora of pop-rock eminences, including John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and They Might Be Giants” (Brantley).
However, in a populous world like Bikini Bottom, these note-worthy artists’ song contributions translate to each artist lending their unique songwriting voice to layer on top of our existing understandings of individual characters, transmogrifying an already crowded theatrical intertextuality. While you would have to flip through the Playbill to read who did what, pre-existing genre and style associations provide enormous tonal cues in the viewer or listener’s psyche. Texas squirrel Sandy Cheeks’ country-strumming “Chop to the Top” is clear Lady Antebellum fodder, and the soul-pouring duet “(I Guess I) Miss You” is drenched in John Legend’s signature cascade of classical-style arpeggios wrapped in a sincere yet teddy bear approachability. Orchestrator Tom Kitt leaned into this driving principal when assembling the disparate pieces declaring, “First and foremost, you have to retain the identity of the artists. It has to be recognizable as their work” (Moore). The exception that does not lean into its songwriters’ pastiche is “Poor Pirates” by Sara Bareilles, which functions as a traditional musical comedy “irrelevant act opener,” poised to provide the audience levity and a chance to “readjust their reality filters” (TV Tropes).
Defined in the singer-songwriter genre, Bareilles is known for lush ballads and plucky inspirational anthems; while Bareilles’ musical theatre writing versatility is evident from her work on Waitress, other Broadway songwriter alum Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) still manages to infuse her distinct musical flavor into her spunky SpongeBob contribution “Hero is My Middle Name.” The palette-cleansing “Poor Pirates” does not lean into its songwriter’s signature, but, in not doing so, gives a reprieve from the myriad musical associations otherwise firing from the show’s eccentric DNA.
Bareilles’ example placed within the larger aural tapestry of The SpongeBob Musical is much like how musical revues of the 1920s historically utilized cultural parody and “not only used the revue form to destabilize cultural hierarchies and address tensions concerning art and commerce, but to bridge the distinct traditions of the Broadway musical and art theatre” (Cantu). Today’s Playlist Musical creators excel in crafting these intertextual meanings due to their encyclopedic knowledge of the last century’s popular music engrained in them from an early start. Moulin Rouge’s Justin Levine began his career concocting vaudevillian medleys of modern songs in a post-modern-jukebox-style revue, and Rock of Ages’ Chris D’Arienzo worked as a DJ in college. Both anecdotes show an early knack for fluidly and authentically subverting and navigating the authorial stamps of existing songwriters. In wielding the power that comes from using a known entity’s aural signature to advance one’s storytelling, beyond honoring the songwriter’s stamp, one must be “intentional, always saying things,” utilizing authorship, humor and fiction to embrace the disruptive potential of the Playlist Musical’s collaborative nature (Jarrow).
In the jukebox genre, there is a certain element of fill-in-the blank; producers either work with an artist or artist’s estate to craft an approved story, or in the case of thematic jukeboxes send check avails to the various music rightsholders much the same way as if asking for an artist’s single to be used in a movie soundtrack. However, the act of building, soliciting and revising a Playlist Musical requires heavy-handed collaboration, demanding unprecedented coordination from producers, directors, songwriters, agents, managers, orchestrators, worthy of close examination:
[It was] different from making a story using the music from one artist, where you know where the songs are coming from and probably where they’ll go. It’s not what’s easier or harder, but what guided us is lyrics. While it was definitely a major consideration that a lot of our songs were recognizable as a way to hook people in, lyrics had to come out of people’s mouths in a believable, character-driven way. Sometimes a blank space can be quite jarring.I find myself most creative when I’m working in relation to something, so to know the story and then get to find songs that help tell that story and live inside the characters’ mouths is really cool. And frustrating. And scary. And all sorts of things.Levine
Both SpongeBob’s Jarrow and Moulin’s Levine shared a similar compositional methodology when tasked with constructing their respective worlds, beginning always with the story and listening within it to find its structural aural needs. The process on both projects was one of creating “holes,” with intro/outro dialogue and/or emotional and plot intent outlined where a song was desired. Levine made playlists with 4–5 songs per “spotted moment” in order to “show not tell” his aural vision. From there, the artist asks went in waves, where Jarrow describes selecting “song vibe by song vibe” to make sure the sounds were varied depending on which artists fit the moment being called for. Where Jarrow delivered clear briefs to artists and their managers, sometimes including suggested title pitches for original song asks, Levine wrote letters sharing his personal connection to the artists’ song(s) being requested accompanied by demos to show “a sense of the energy of the song.” Both creators credit huge affinity for the source material to a high rate of artist ask success, proving an unexpected ease of working in this genre if one can persevere through the hoops of music clearances that are beyond the scope of this piece. Moulin landed on 70 pop tracks by a variety of different writers varying from four seconds to a full song (also skipping the traditional list of musical numbers in their Playbill) and involving approvals from 161 composers represented by roughly 30 publishers where the compositions were licensed on a “most favored nations” basis, where all publishers received a standard deal based on the duration of song segments (Milzoff). Any no’s from artists translated to asking what was at the heart of the moment and investigating other matching avenues to achieve that. Song choices for Moulin were rooted in longevity:
A lot of the choices that I made were rooted in finding “contemporary classics,” meaning that you’ll notice that there weren’t a lot of “songs of the summer before” in the show, and a lot of that was that I don’t want to choose a song that the DJs in clubs and weddings and bar mitzvahs etc. are going to play that summer. I want them to be the ones that they would play for the next 10 or 20 summers. I want a song that I suspect isn’t going anywhere anytime soon to increase the shelf life of the show. But also I would go back to the film and I would say “you know I don’t hear ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Paul McCartney on the radio,” but it doesn’t really matter because it’s in my experience of the movie. And my hopes for the musical is that it just becomes part of the fabric of this piece that we created in a particular time . . . just like a playlist or mix, it speaks to a moment. It’s a great way of almost building a time capsule that spans many years.Levine
When it comes to using newly written songs on the other hand, most artists on SpongeBob were surprisingly laissez fare when it came to any rewrites necessary in a storytelling medium prone to rigorous fine-tuning. While Jarrow and the creative team endeavored not to change the songwriter’s stamp and intentions on the integrity of the song, the key was to “lock in lyrics” so they were specific to driving the story. Still, Jarrow describes the fundamental tightrope of Playlist Musical collaboration:
We tried to invite the artist to be in as much of the process as they wanted to be. Interestingly, most of them didn’t really want to be. Most said, “send us what you do, and I’ll thumbs it up,” in some cases they didn’t even need to approve it, others did want to come to a rehearsal. In general, they were much more hands-off about it which was a surprise. But it raised an internal question, even if an artist is okay with us tweaking the material, do we want to do that? To what extent is the whole point of the show that it’s their song?Jarrow
Possibly the strength of the Playlist Musical as a genre is the ability to draw inspiration from existing musical works in order to stretch beyond your own single point of view. Moulin Rouge! embraced this spirit of decentralized work wholeheartedly:
There are plenty of shows that have had multiple orchestrators and contributors to the orchestration, but translating the cinematic style was key to me. To make sure our collaboration was authentically Moulin Rouge I wanted to bring people in my musical life into the mix that come from very different perspectives: Matt Stine has a background in production as well being a great lover and creator of hip-hop and sampling; Katie Kresek, a tremendous violin player but also a string arranger with a relationship to pop music touring with Adele; and Charlie Rosen doing a lot of the horn arranging is this fount of styles and has instinctual abilities to express musically and adapt and move different genres. There were certainly things that made it a complex process that while the four of us were essentially in charge of orchestrating this show, I think as the person who was curating that playlist and building that score and also building those arrangements, I was able to act as the glue and to take these four very distinct sensibilities and talents and bring them together in a way where it felt like it was coming from one place.Levine
However, it’s not always such smooth sailing. Playlist Musical King Kong opened in Australia in 2013 featuring a score by Marius de Vries (music director of the film Moulin Rouge), lyrics by Michael Mitnick and Craig Lucas, a book by Lucas and additional music and lyrics by British artist 3D, Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, British musician Guy Garvey, French electronic music duo Justice and Australian electronic music group The Avalanches. The Australian production took five years of planning, presumably due to the gigantic titular puppet that drew focus from the music as evidenced in the flippant Broadway review, “What is gained in bringing ‘King Kong’ to the stage? Certainly not provocative or insightful songwriting. The score is a hodgepodge of soundtrack-style murk and a clutch of no-profile songs. . . . The only reason for this ‘King Kong’ to exist is its title character” (Green and Brantley). By the time of their review, the show had already engaged—and then dismissed—book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Jason Robert Brown, who described how most of the Australian score would remain intact sonically, with his character song additions surrounding the titular scene-stealing beast: “I’m primarily just there to write songs for the characters. There’s a whole lot of music that already exists for King Kong that’s really exciting, and the gorilla itself is really unbelievable” (Hetrick).
By the time the show opened on Broadway, the creative team was instead book writer Jack Thorne and Australian songwriter Eddie Perfect, who replaced the former creatives. No longer credited in the headlines but still present, however, are traces of the original music production team, as credited in the Broadway Playbill. Despite being slammed by critics, the King Kong aural landscape is derivative of its songwriters’ various cinematic soundtrack, electronic arrangement and traditional musical theatre backgrounds. Orchestral backtracking of scenes isn’t inherently frowned on; however, attention was not paid to the ways in which Kong’s use of electronic music invoked what ended up being negative associations to theme park queues and laser-filled clubs for a generally Baby Boomer audience demographic. Compared to other Playlist Musicals, using artists with little to no aural cognitive recognition poses new challenges to audience-aural cohesion, with examples proliferating in a digital age.
Digital and Remix Culture
Maintaining creative tension between musical theatre traditions and multi-composer contributions requires meticulous weaving of various collective identities into the singular:
Part of why I wanted to have an orchestration team with a lot of different people on it is because when you think about the movie, it’s a collage. And that’s the sound—it’s not a pristine sound, not a dirty sound, and I wanted to make sure that we honored that aspect of it that there was room to get a little dirty and bring your own spice to the playing of this score. I felt there was a danger if one person orchestrated this score, it might be a bit homogeneous in the wrong way. Cohesion is the good version of that, but homogeneous can take away from that excess and pastiche that makes one love the score.Levine
No tool is more adept at bringing diverse voices together than modern digital applications. While popular songwriters may be a reliable source for songs in the short term, the next phase for Playlist Musicals is happening online. Lesser-known and everyday artists are experimenting in this new genre sandbox as digital native generations take the reins with an instinct and demand for collaboration. Henry Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture intervenes on all digital interfaces, changing passive consumption habits (watching TV, listening to radio) to active participation and engagement with media in such forms as posts, comments, FanFictions, message boards and general memeability where the subject can be modified and remixed within cohorts “in-the-know.” This interactivity deems the audience as a depository of creative world-building; the more layers and entry-points to an experience of the IP/song/text/video/content the better.
Whereas the previous Playlist Musicals were material, Playlist Musicals can also be temporal, preferring digital collaboration over physical productions. TikTok, a short video content app, is a natural tool for multi-collaborator theatre because its algorithm curates one’s feed with videos around themes based on one’s view history rather than user’s personal friends. If you engage with one video about theatre, the algorithm will promote another that’s similar in order to gauge interest and eventually ensure you are constantly fed relevant content to your unique likes and preferences. TikTok’s culture subsequently creates mini communities wherein like-minded individuals can create and see videos riffing off of a shared passion. The “Ratatouille Musical,” based on a 15-second TikTok video about the Disney Pixar film, was one such digital collectivism that snowballed between thousands of TikTok users writing original songs of all styles, plus set and prop mockups, choreography, and memes, against one central idea. While there were certainly opinions on what was “canon,” its multi-authored nature meant inherently there was no official or chronological way to consume it. While Broadway producers eventually seized on the phenomenon to create one “staged version,” what “Ratatouille” achieved through its multi-authored and democratic nature was a “decentralization of the seat and pulse of creation” usually reserved for those very producers who “swiss-cheesed” its intent (Rine, “‘Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical’: A Case Study of Connecting to a Digital Theatre Audience: Part 1”).
The transmedia universe “Averno” also borders the Playlist Musical, comprised of multiple musical concept albums, but also podcasts, livestreams, novels and short stories, TV and film scripts, and an extensive alternate-reality game contributed by various teenage artists part of the Averno cohort. Writers Morgan Smith and Sushi Soucy became mutuals on Instagram and TikTok before hashing out an outline via Google Docs and growing a team of their peers versed in musical composition, production, and performance; ten people are listed as the music composers and production team on their website. Smith said, “The running rule is, if I didn’t make it or decide on it, it’s not canon. Just because I have a very specific set of aesthetics and questions and themes—it’s what makes Averno feel cohesive. If this was just 150 unrelated artists working together, it would just be a cool collage without internal integrity or structure” (Vincentelli). Whether multiple song contributors are guided by an auteur or left to snowball, digital platforms of distribution are central to the Playlist Musical’s evolution in democratizing musical spaces and authorship.
But they’re not without problems. Extended-reality theatre practitioner Brandon Powers builds bridges between some of these physical and virtual worlds for a living, combining dance, theatre and tech in multi-disciplinary projects that require a similar level of scrupulous communication, artistic selectivity and multi-collaborator translation to Playlist processes. He sees this next generation of artists as “remixers, samplers, and collaborators to their core,” where “TikTok is the modern-day Homer, meme culture meets folk culture.” He cautions the vital necessity of crediting; despite an expectation and “impulse to build on top of things to engage with your work,” digital generations also value citing trend sources, especially from underrepresented artists appropriated by bigger stars. Just as the 70 songs in Moulin Rouge get credit, there is at once a growing appetite yet impossibility to trace and credit the vast lineage of memetics being built online, where any given song is not only available digitally to stream but able to be remixed, layered, distorted, molded, referenced or bypassed copyright detection entirely across apps and interactions (Press-Reynolds). Powers muses the real benefit of co-authorship online is in publicity and exposure. The clout of crediting and collaborating with others benefits Playlist-type work whether in the physical or digital realms of creation by adding new layers of meaning and associations that seek to decentralize artistic ownership in favor of multiple voices’ contributions to an artistic entity.
Playlist Musicals and their associated multi-author collaborative components and processes expound on modern day consumer listening habits, popular music associations, compositional methods, and digital participatory culture to invite a world decentralized from the singular authorial voice to the voices, perspectives, and aural signatures of many. As music historian Gary Ingle writes, “Individuals who act independently can become just noise that can be dismissed or played against each other by companies and policy makers. A unified voice gets heard. And good things happen when groups of people are empowered to speak with one voice.”
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*Natalie Rine is a New York theatre critic and staff writer for OnStage Blog. A graduate of American University, research activities include “Immersive Theatre as Christian Liminality” (AU) and “A Study on the Strategic Advancement of Musical Theatre Performance Between Korea and the US” (Yonsei University). In 2019, she founded Jeanealogy Productions, an international theatrical brand licensing company.
Copyright © 2021 Natalie Rine
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