Theater Talk


Miss Saigon’s Boublil and Schönberg

The creative team discusses the inspiration for the original production of the show, which is based on the opera, Madame Butterfly, but set in Vietnam during and after the American military incursion. They explain how they have modified the show, which first opened in NYC in 1991 (and ran for 10 years), for the new, spectacular 2017 revival. They also recall the beginning of their partnership.

AIRED: May 25, 2017 | 0:26:45

>> HASKINS: Coming up on...

>> RIEDEL: This show made

front-page news because the

great Jonathan Pryce was

playing The Engineer.

So the Asian-American actors

protested against "Miss Saigon"

and Cameron canceled the show

for Broadway.

Were you guys in favor of his

decision, or were you terrified?

>> BOUBLIL: We were terrified by

the fact that he was refunding

$33 million, if I remember well.

>> HASKINS: "Theater Talk" is

made possible in part by...

[ Helicopter blades whirring ]

[ Bomb explodes ]

[ People screaming ]

>> THE ENGINEER: Welcome to


>> HASKINS: From New York City,

this is "Theater Talk."

I'm Susan Haskins.

>> RIEDEL: And I'm

Michael Riedel of

theNew York Post.

Now, Susan, when I started out

as a kid reporter in this


>> HASKINS: I remember.

>> RIEDEL: of the big

shows that I covered -- it was

the biggest show we had ever

seen in the history of

Broadway -- was "Miss Saigon," a

terrific musical.

26 years later, it's back on

Broadway and I'm still covering

"Miss Saigon," written by

Alain Boublil and

Claude-Michel Schonberg.

Welcome, guys, to

"Theater Talk."

>> HASKINS: Welcomeback to

"Theater Talk."

>> RIEDEL: You were here for the

10th anniversary of "Les Mis."

>> SCHONBERG: Thank you.

It makes us younger.

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

You have not changed in 26


>> BOUBLIL: Of course.

Thank you.

>> RIEDEL: But has the show

changed in 26 years?

What is different,

Claude-Michel, about this

production on Broadway now from

the one you did originally?

>> SCHONBERG: Except practically

one brand-new song for the

character of Ellen, it's only

the production, the set, and the

orchestration, too, but that's

not to be mentioned because

that's not as of use as the

physical aspect of the show,

which is completely different.

>> RIEDEL: In what way is it

different from what I remember?

>> BOUBLIL: Well, I must add to

that that there are more

differences in the lyrics

because with Cameron Mackintosh,

the producer, we had decided

long ago that, the day where we

redo "Miss Saigon," there was

some improvements or changes we

needed to make.

So, there are changes everywhere

and, in fact, you know, I've

written -- the original lyrics

were Richard Maltby Jr., for

"Miss Saigon."

And this time, I've asked a

young writer from Chicago called

Michael Mahler to help me in

fine-tuning different sections

of the lyrics which we have

finessed or maybe added a joke

here and there.

And in "The American Dream" and

obviously, the new song,

"Maybe," is a complete new song.

Just the fourth of the song for

this character, but I hope the


>> RIEDEL: You've finally gotten

to write the song.

>> BOUBLIL: I hope so.

>> RIEDEL: Well, the woman,

she's the American wife of the

soldier who goes off and falls

in love with Kim.

And that always seemed, to me,

to be a difficult part.

>> SCHONBERG: It's very

difficult because, when we

opened the show, a few people

wrote to us and wrote Cameron to

say, "Why don't Chris kill Ellen

so he can go away with Kim and

have the love affair?"

And as in the original opera,

"Madama Butterfly" by Puccini,

Kate Middle-- Kate Pinkerton.

>> RIEDEL: Pinkerton. [ Laughs ]

>> BOUBLIL: He lives in London.

>> SCHONBERG: Kate Pinkerton,

she's a troublemaker, and she

has only two lines.

It's a very difficult character

to be liked by the audience

because without her, there is

no problem.

>> HASKINS: But her new song,

"Maybe," does make her more

pensive and sympathetic.

>> SCHONBERG: That's what we


>> BOUBLIL: I hope so.

You know, she has two

interventions in the show.

One is in act one, when she is

in Atlanta, on the other side of

the world, after having married

the soldier, Chris, while Kim,

the young Vietnamese girl who he

has not abandoned, but he was

forced to abandon because of

the war.

So, it's a great moment where

these two women sing about the

same man on each side of the


And in act two, then she's

married, she's here, they know

he has a child, and they have a

decision to make.

So, "Maybe" is the moment where

she suddenly realizes that,

maybe, the kind of love that

this Vietnamese girl has given

to her husband, in an

extraordinary week, when

everyone was leaving on the edge

of the volcano, the last days of

the Vietnam War...

>> RIEDEL: Fall of Saigon, yeah.

>> BOUBLIL: ...before the fall,

maybe she can never give the

same kind of love that he's been

experiencing with her.

>> HASKINS: Am I correct that,

in the scene where Kim and Chris

symbolically get married and

the women are gathered around,

have you put real Vietnamese

lyrics there where there were


>> BOUBLIL: We thought there


I correct, because Claude-Michel

and I, back in '86 or '87, when

we were writing "Miss Saigon,"

the very, very first version,

which was in French at the time,

we went to a Vietnamese

restaurant, and there are many

of them in Paris, and we spent

the whole evening with a

waitress there, trying to make

her, you know, approve.

>> RIEDEL: Of the song?

>> SCHONBERG: And after each

Vietnamese person coming to her,

they were explaining that it

means nothing.

>> BOUBLIL: No, not after.


And you were a part of that


Recently, suddenly, after 25

years where no one complained,

suddenly we receive three

complaints at the same time,

saying, "Do you realize that

that doesn't really mean

anything, what you are saying?"

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

>> BOUBLIL: "It might mean

something, but it doesn't."

Fortunately, there was a

Vietnamese boy in the company --

in the new company -- a

brilliant dancer and actor.

So, I went to him and I said,

"What do you think?"

And he said, "Look, if you

replace one syllable here and

one syllable there in these four

lines" -- just four lines in

total, which are repeated --

he said, "It's gonna be perfect


And I can swear it is.

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

Now, Claude-Michel, I remember

the first production as being --

Back in those days, everything

on Broadway was big and it was

the helicopter and it was a big,

glitzy set.

Is this a sparer, more

naturalistic version of

"Miss Saigon," the one that's on

Broadway now?

>> SCHONBERG: It's a much more

realistic version of Saigon, but

a show is a show.

The nature of the show is still

the same.

So, for a show like that, or for

"Les Mis" or "Miss Saigon," you

can't do it in a kitchen.

It's impossible.

>> HASKINS: And you have outdone

yourselves with the helicopter.

>> BOUBLIL: To have an iconic

tool like that, why wouldn't you

perfect it?

>> SCHONBERG: And don't forget

that the helicopter, it's in our

original script.

>> HASKINS: Yes.

>> RIEDEL: Yeah.

>> SCHONBERG: Because we wanted

to tell the story in act two

that we didn't tell in act one,

because we were following the

shape, the structure, of the

opera work by Puccini, where

there is a gap of three years in

act one...

>> HASKINS: Yeah.

>> SCHONBERG: ...between the

love night and when she's

waiting for him in

Nagasaki Harbor three years


>> RIEDEL: Yeah.

>> SCHONBERG: So, we wanted to

respect that.

But in act two, we wanted to

tell the story, this gap of

three years, so we must have a


But the helicopter was written


And the first meeting we had

with John Napier, the original

set designer, he came to us and

he said, "What am I going to do?

You want a helicopter on stage."

>> BOUBLIL: And we said, "Watch


>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

>> SCHONBERG: Now, we could have

said -- I told John, "We could

have written a 747 taking off

from Tan Son Nhat airport, and

it's just on the helicopter.

So, that's your problem, not


>> RIEDEL: Listen, the opera

"Nixon in China," they have

Air Force One on the stage.

>> SCHONBERG: But it's not

flying, that Air Force One.

>> RIEDEL: No, it's not.

It rolls it.

This show made front-page news

back in 1990, I guess it would


>> BOUBLIL: 1989.

>> RIEDEL: '89.

>> BOUBLIL: Oh, in America,


>> RIEDEL: In 1991.

But it was on the front page

of -- I remember --

theDaily News, New York Post,

bigNew York Times story,

because the great Jonathan Pryce

was playing The Engineer.

>> BOUBLIL: Was cast.

>> RIEDEL: Yes, was cast.

He played it in London.

>> BOUBLIL: And he played it in

London, and there was that big

Equity problem.

>> RIEDEL: So, the

Asian-American actors protested

against "Miss Saigon."

Equity withdrew its support,

and Cameron canceled the show

for Broadway.

>> SCHONBERG: Postponed the


>> RIEDEL: Were you guys in

favor of his decision, or were

you terrified?

>> BOUBLIL: We were terrified by

the fact that he was refunding

$33 million, if I remember well.

And that, we would normally have

a little slice of that.

>> SCHONBERG: But I must say, we

knew that one day it would come.

>> RIEDEL: Right. Right.

>> HASKINS: Yes.

>> SCHONBERG: What we were

terrified is that, suddenly, the

show was not the show we had

been writing.

>> RIEDEL: Yeah. Yeah.

>> SCHONBERG: Because we'd never

write a show to have

controversy, but the casting of

somebody was supposed to be

half Asian, half European.

Because in the opera work, the

character of Goro is the


He's Asian, but dress with a


>> RIEDEL: With a Western


>> SCHONBERG: ...costume.

So, we wanted the same for

The Engineer, a kind of half

Vietnamese, half -- So, it

turns out that he's Asian.

>> BOUBLIL: And even more than

that, we didn't know what the

word "blind casting" meant.

>> RIEDEL: Oh, right, right.

>> BOUBLIL: We discovered the

existence of the problem, and

since then, we have become the

biggest employer...

>> RIEDEL: That's the irony of

the story of "Miss Saigon."

>> BOUBLIL: ...of blind-casting


>> RIEDEL: Asian performers all

over the world have been given

a ton of work from

"Miss Saigon."

>> HASKINS: Including the Asian

actor now, who plays

The Engineer.

>> BOUBLIL: Jon Jon Briones.

He's a Filipino -- of Filipino

descent -- but he's an American


>> HASKINS: And he grew up in

your production, in a sense.

>> SCHONBERG: Yeah, because he

met us in Manila at the original

audition in '88.

He came from a little village

where everybody was giving him

money to buy the tickets for the


And he arrived in Manila, and he

had no money.

The casting director put him on

the chair and writing the name

of the people coming to audition

with a time and everything.

And at the end, he ask her, "Can

I audition, too?"

And he has been part of the

company since.

>> HASKINS: Now, his big number

is "The American Dream."

>> BOUBLIL: Yeah.

I can say it's big, from what I

saw last night.

>> HASKINS: It's big.

But the meaning has changed

there, and particularly now with

our present problem with


Is there a new irony?

Do you see a new irony in this


>> BOUBLIL: Not a word has been


>> HASKINS: No, I know.

>> BOUBLIL: But it happens that

the same words mean something

different 20 years later.

>> HASKINS: Yes.

>> SCHONBERG: The irony was


>> BOUBLIL: From the beginning.

>> SCHONBERG: ...from the


>> BOUBLIL: It's the character.

>> SCHONBERG: What's happening

today is that, this story could

have happened in Syria, in Iraq,

in Afghanistan, everywhere where

you have a situation with

American soldiers being there.

And plenty of people, they want

to leave the country.

For the moment, they want to go

to England in Europe, but a lot

of them would like to come to

the U.S.A., too.

>> BOUBLIL: But Jon Jon is very

moving when he plays it now.

Because, you know, it's a

twisted version of the American

dream, obviously.

But in his perverted mind, it is

what he really believes that

America is gonna bring to him.

>> HASKINS: The Engineer, yeah.

>> BOUBLIL: And the American

dream, isn't it, at the end,

what everyone thinks -- it's for


>> RIEDEL: Mm-hmm.

>> BOUBLIL: Everyone is dreaming

a different dream of the

American dream, a different


And that's what he thinks

America is, or will be, for him.

And he's gonna be part of a

group of people who may not be

the kind of people you want to

spend an evening with, but

that's what he wants.

>> SCHONBERG: What's wonderful

with Jon Jon is that he was

born in the Philippines, in a

small village, and his desire to

come to America.

He knows exactly what it means.

>> BOUBLIL: As big as

The Engineer.

>> SCHONBERG: As part of his


>> HASKINS: Also, we were

introducing a whole new

generation who have forgotten

the Vietnam War, who weren't

aware of it.

>> BOUBLIL: And that may be why

there are so many young people

in the theater.

Last night, half of the audience

were 25, 30, 35.

>> HASKINS: Yes.

>> RIEDEL: They weren't born

when the show came around the

first time.

>> BOUBLIL: They weren't born,


And also, obviously, the

presence of Eva Noblezada,

who was cast when she was 17,

and it was a blessing.

I mean, she's one of the purest

voices you can hear in this


Even after having been blessed

with Lea Salonga 25 years ago,

suddenly, we have a new miracle

that has happened to

"Miss Saigon."

>> HASKINS: And these kids who

are in the audience -- the 22-,

23-, 24-year-old -- do you think

they would've known the show,

really, just from the score,

from the popularity of the score

all of these years?

>> SCHONBERG: Usually, some of

them, or their parents, they

have heard about "Miss Saigon,"

that it was a musical, an

important musical on Broadway,

and maybe they have a recording

at home.

I'm sure there is a knowledge of

what the subject is.

>> BOUBLIL: It's about a young

girl and her mother, who makes

the sacrifice of giving away her

own child for her to find the

American soldier who has been

obliged to leave Vietnam at the

end of the war.

>> SCHONBERG: And it's not


There was so many case, worse,

that were --

>> HASKINS: And if they stayed

there, they lived in shame,

right, in Vietnam?

>> BOUBLIL: Of course.

>> SCHONBERG: Of course.

There were the children who were

called "bui doi," meaning

"dust of life."

And the women who used to sleep

with the American soldiers,

called "diem my", which is

"American prostitute."

They were lower than lower in

the class.

>> BOUBLIL: So, our only regret,

really, on that same subject, is

that the original idea is

when -- came of doing

"Miss Saigon" when Claude-Michel

saw that picture of this mother

handing her daughter at the

airport, at Saigon airport,

and since the show has opened,

we were never able to find her.

>> RIEDEL: The woman in that

picture that inspired...

>> BOUBLIL: Yes.

>> SCHONBERG: The little girl.

>> BOUBLIL: The little girl who

was in the picture, she was 5.

>> SCHONBERG: No, 11 years old.

>> BOUBLIL: So, she must be 45


>> SCHONBERG: And we always

hoped that one day she would

come and say, "It's me."

>> BOUBLIL: So, we mention her

once again today.

>> SCHONBERG: We hope that she's

somewhere in America, that she

had a wonderful life.

And the first preview that we

played two days ago, I asked

everybody to play the show for

her just for the first time.

>> RIEDEL: Where did you see

that photograph?

>> SCHONBERG: In a French


It was exactly at the time we

were transferring

"Les Misérables" from the

original run-through in London,

the Barbican Centre, to the

Palace Theatre in the West End.

And we were starting to think

about a new musical.

I was pestering Alain, "Why

don't we do 'Madama Butterfly'

in Grenada, when the Americans

did invade Grenada, with the

French in Vietnam?"

And suddenly, I saw this picture

and I said, "But the sacrifice

of this woman is the same as

the one and gone by Cio-Cio-San

in the opera work.

So why don't we do it during

the Vietnam War?"

>> RIEDEL: Hmm.

>> BOUBLIL: And then I completed

by saying, "Now my idea of

having a beauty pageant on

stage one day can be done."

>> RIEDEL: Right, and you always

wanted to put a beauty pageant

in a musical?

Why were you interested in that?

>> BOUBLIL: I don't know.

>> SCHONBERG: He's obsessed by

two things -- beauty pageants

and nuns...

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

>> SCHONBERG: a musical.

>> BOUBLIL: The nuns I still

have to do.

>> RIEDEL: Now, there are some

nuns in "Les Misérables."

>> SCHONBERG: Yeah, yeah, but

they are --

>> BOUBLIL: Passing. In passing.

Helping Fantine in bed.

>> RIEDEL: Where did you guys


And were you both American

musical-theater fans when you

were growing up?

>> SCHONBERG: It was in a ball

in France and we started to

dance together.

[ Laughter ]

>> BOUBLIL: It was really in

Paris, where we both were

songwriters, pop-song writers.

>> RIEDEL: Pop-song writers.

Not theater.

>> BOUBLIL: No, no, not theater.

>> SCHONBERG: What theater?

It doesn't exist.

>> BOUBLIL: Musical theater

didn't exist, you know, at that


>> RIEDEL: Well, you had the

opera buffa, right?

>> BOUBLIL: We had opera buffa,

we had opera, but, you know, it

was the kind of style that we're

not interested in.

And one day, I saw

"West Side Story" on stage,

luckily, and that has been like

an earthquake in my head.

And I just couldn't sleep and

I was thinking, "What can I do

with this informational?"

But that was long before I met


And we met through a song, which

I heard on the French radio,

which he had written.

And I thought this song was

telling the kind of story


>> RIEDEL: Which a

musical-theater song can say.

>> BOUBLIL: Which is exactly

what I was writing in my lyrics,

that I'm trying to make a story

and not just a familiar gimmick

or something.

>> HASKINS: Do we know this


>> SCHONBERG: No, no, no.

It was "Every Day at 4:00," so

you can't.

>> RIEDEL: Was that the title?

>> BOUBLIL: So, I called the

record company, for which

Claude-Michel was also working

for a record company, and I was

working for a publisher in

France -- a music publisher.

And I said, "Who's the guy who

wrote that song?"

And he was working at TMI, and

they gave me his name, and we

spoke, and we slowly discovered

that we both have had an

attraction for something which

wouldn't be the familiar song


But we had no idea, no vision of

what that could -- could be the

answer to that question.

And I think the first time was

when I went to see -- I was

traveling to New York on a kind

of publishing trip.

And I went to see

"Jesus Christ Superstar" by


>> RIEDEL: Huh.

>> HASKINS: By accident.

>> BOUBLIL: Yeah, because I was

offered a ticket of someone who

could not go.

>> RIEDEL: So this would be


>> BOUBLIL: That was in 19...

>> SCHONBERG: '73. '73.

>> BOUBLIL: '72.

And that night, I understood the

message from "West Side Story."

That night I said, "But this is

what we want to do.

This is what is going through my

head for years, and which I

could not put a name on."

And I could see that these two

guys -- Andrew Lloyd Webber and

Tim Rice -- whom, obviously, I

didn't know at that time -- were

writing musicals, but like

pop-song writers.

>> RIEDEL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

>> BOUBLIL: And that intrigued


And then I walked the whole

night on 42nd Street, which was,

believe me, not the kind of

42nd Street like today.

And the idea of the French

Revolution -- our first musical,

"La Révolution Francaise" --

came to my mind.

I said, "Why don't we make

Robespierre and Marat and

King Louis XVI and

Marie Antoinette?"

And I realized soon that all

these people were my age.

They were 25 to 27.

All of them were under 30.

So, suddenly, I said, "But then

they should be allowed to sing."

And I came back to Paris, spoke

to a friend I was working with,

and I said, "We are going to

stop what we are doing.

We're going to write a musical."


>> RIEDEL: Of the French


>> BOUBLIL: So I had to explain.

And one of the friends, who was

my usual partner, was working

with me in that company, they

said, "That's the time to call

immediately Claude-Michel."

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

So what did you think about the

idea of a French Revolution


>> SCHONBERG: It was a wonderful

challenge because...

>> BOUBLIL: Claude-Michel

thought, "Let's do it."

>> SCHONBERG: ...I was too fed

up with the format of the

average 3-minute-and-15-second


I'd been writing hundreds and

hundreds of them.

And when I was young, I fell

into the opera world.

I don't know why, for what


So, my knowledge of opera score,

I was writing big stuff for a

big orchestra.

That's why our friend told

Alain, "Claude-Michel can bring

the scope of the big music and

everything because he knows how

opera works and he is writing

pop songs."

>> RIEDEL: Did you like American

musical theater when you were

growing up?

Did you --

>> SCHONBERG: I didn't know

about it.

I saw "West Side Story" six

times, the first day of the

release of the movie.

I thought it was fantastic.

>> RIEDEL: The Bernstein score,


>> SCHONBERG: But there is no

tradition of musical theater in


There is no school.

We don't perform at the end of

each year any...of

"Christmas Carol."


So, in France, when you want to

work in the musical theater, you

do it against the system and

not with the system.

You have to be yourself, because

to be an opera composer in the

'70s in France, it's totally


Everybody was telling me that I

was mad.

When we started to do the French

Revolution, they all thought,

"So, you're going to stop to

write songs?

You stupid, or what?

You're going to lose everything.

And a musical, it's not working

in France."

>> HASKINS: What's the popular

tradition of theater?

>> SCHONBERG: There is a big

theater play tradition in

France, and there was a

tradition of opera buffa and a

tradition of what we call


But the operetta was never

renewed by anybody, so it died

with its audience.

>> RIEDEL: Right.

>> SCHONBERG: And when we

started the French Revolution,

it was already 20 years that

there were nothing like

"The Inn of the White Horse" or

plenty of operetta like that,

traditional operetta.

There was nothing.

>> RIEDEL: Has your success led

people, another generation of

French songwriters, to be

attracted to the musical


>> BOUBLIL: I'm not sure it's

our success, but now every

songwriter in France is writing

a musical.

>> RIEDEL: [ Laughs ]

>> BOUBLIL: You have 12 musicals

this year, playing -- not all

successful at all.

But to go back on

"La Révolution Francaise," I

think we should say that this

was in the middle of the disco

period in France.

>> RIEDEL: [ Chuckling ] Yes.

>> BOUBLIL: And this concept

album that we had done, of the

French Revolution, on the model

of the white album of...

>> HASKINS: "Jesus Christ


>> BOUBLIL: ..."Jesus Christ

Superstar" was an overnight hit.

It sold half a million copies...

>> RIEDEL: Really?

>> BOUBLIL: a month.

>> SCHONBERG: Without any


>> BOUBLIL: Nothing.

Then we started to receive calls

from everyone who was involved

in, kind of, entertainment,

because there was no producer of

musical theater as such.

So, we received calls from

anyone who was doing concert,

was doing something in that

world, including radio stations,

offering to turn it into a

stage show.

In two months, we decided --

just the two of us -- that we

should write...

>> SCHONBERG: To link 24 songs.

>> BOUBLIL: ...all the

recitative, the missing links,

and all that, because we only

had 24 songs on a double album.

And we turned it into, more or

less, a musical.

>> RIEDEL: The French version of

"Jesus Christ Superstar," in

some ways.

>> BOUBLIL: And it was hugely

successful on stage, too.

>> SCHONBERG: And we had a

rock-'n'-roll group on stage to

play the revolutionaries.

And a big orchestra -- 50


In those days, it was not a

financial problem.

We had a symphony orchestra in

the pit and a rock-'n'-roll

group on stage.

>> BOUBLIL: And it was called

"The first French rock opera."

>> RIEDEL: Mm-hmm.

>> BOUBLIL: And still is,

because you can still find the

record on Amazon today.

>> RIEDEL: Really?

But it did not, of course,

become "Les Misérables."

Has Cameron Mackintosh ever

said, "Hey, guys, we should look

at that French Revolution


>> BOUBLIL: No, because he

always thought that it could

become confusing, because there

is a three-day street revolution

in "Les Misérables."

>> HASKINS: Yes.

>> BOUBLIL: And 90% of the

American audience...

>> RIEDEL: Think it's the

French Revolution.

>> BOUBLIL: Exactly.

You said it, not me.

>> RIEDEL: It's true.

'Cause they come and, "Where's


All right, the show is

"Miss Saigon," back after 26

years at the Broadway Theatre,

where it started originally,

written by Alain Boublil and

Claude-Michel Schonberg.

Thank you very much for being

our guests, and I hope it

runs -- How long did the first

one run? 15...?

>> SCHONBERG: 10 years.

>> BOUBLIL: Exactly 10 years.

Closed in 2001.

>> RIEDEL: Well, we wish you

another 10 years with this one.

>> BOUBLIL: Well, thank you.

>> RIEDEL: [ Chuckling ] Okay.

>> THE ENGINEER: ♪ Say can you

see? ♪

♪ Land of the free

♪ Soon you will buy it from me

>> ♪ The American

>> HASKINS: Our thanks to the

friends of "Theater Talk" for

their significant contribution

to this production.

>> ANNOUNCER: We welcome your

questions or comments

for "Theater Talk."

Thank you.


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