By Howard Pousner
Tena Clark, the composer-lyricist behind “Twist,” the musical priming for its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre, pauses to make something clear near the end of a conversation in which she mentions more stars than your average copy of People magazine.
“At the time, I had been writing with Marvin Hamlisch,” she says, starting to recount an anecdote from long ago before stopping in mid-sentence to clarify: “I’m not dropping names, but that’s just the truth!”
Truly, Clark can hardly help herself. She might not be a household name, but so many of the R&B, soul and pop stars she’s either written songs for or produced are, including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, LeAnn Rimes and Chaka Khan.
Small of stature, the 56-year-old Mississippi native commands R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the music business, and is known as a go-to composer for movie and television productions — a quick study who can crank out polished songs with stunning speed.
She’s also created national advertising campaign themes, including “Have You Had Your Break Today?” for McDonald’s. And her Pasadena, Calif., company, DMI Music & Media Solutions, programs in-flight music for Air Force One.
Clark brings up her old writing partner Hamlisch to show how little she knew about the world of Broadway musicals when she was approached to work on “Twist,” which opens the Alliance season Sept. 15.
When producers reached out to her, she told them she wasn’t interested, demurring, “I don’t know anything about Broadway.” But after getting “bitten” by the stage treatment, which transforms 1830s London orphan Oliver Twist into mulatto street waif Twist in 1928 New Orleans, she prepared to sign on.
She informed the producers she was willing to commit six weeks to write the music and lyrics. They laughed and told her, no, it would take at least two years. That’s when she called someone who she figured would know, the composer of “A Chorus Line.”
Hamlisch howled and told her the producers were wrong. So how long will it take, Clark asked.
“Marvin said, ‘Give it 10, 15, 16 years,’ ” she recounts. “He said, ‘If you think you’re going to have this done in a couple of years, forget it, it’s not going to happen.’
“And he was right.”
Except it took 20 years.
Here are a few scenes from those years offered by Clark, the production’s most veteran creative team member, who has nudged the Dickens adaptation along a path that everyone involved hopes will lead to Broadway …
She was the second choice for composer-lyricist, but given who was the first, she didn’t mind.
“I [asked] why did you call me? They said they called Quincy Jones and he couldn’t do it, but referred me. I was like, OK, that’s a good reason to look at this.
“I wasn’t good friends with Quincy, but he had heard my work. He knew I was from Mississippi and the New Orleans area, and he knew that I got it and that it would be right up my alley. Which was correct.”
She started writing songs after all but telling “Twist” producers she would pass.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going on vacation for a couple of weeks, I’ll just take the treatment with me and look at it. But I can just tell you I’m really swamped with film and TV work. I mean, I can pretty much guarantee that it’s not going to happen.’
“So I went away and came back with six pieces written. I was totally smitten and bitten.”
She’s written 50 songs for the show over the years, with around 20 expected to make the final cut.
“Of those six pieces written years ago, there’s still four in the show, which is quite amazing. Because when you change book writers in the middle of the stream, [a show] can take a drastic change. This one did not take a drastic change, but it did take a change.”
William F. Brown (“The Wiz”) is “Twist’s” book writer, and Nashville composer Gary Prim has collaborated with Clark on the score.
Clark relates deeply to “Oliver Twist.”
“I’ve always loved the story of a kid or any person who, against all odds, made it. Because I felt like that was me, in many ways.
“The first time I ever played some of the songs for my mom, who’s passed away now, she was just bawling her eyes out. I said: ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said, ‘It’s you.’
“Twist sings, ’One day you’ll see/ you’ll be proud of me/ you’ll know who I am one day.’ Growing up in a little town [Waynesboro] in rural Mississippi and having a father who was very distanced and business-minded, I was a duck out of water. Especially in Mississippi, being white, being female and when I sat down to play [she’s a drummer] or write, R&B music came out.”
She pulled from her Mississippi childhood for inspiration.
“I thought how can you top ‘More,’ a song that asks, ‘Can I have more, please?’ ” Well, you can’t top it, you just write something that you hope is equally as good, that has somewhat of a similar message.
“I thought, OK, if he’s not asking for more what would he be asking for? He’s grown up in an orphanage, that’s all he’s ever known.
“Growing up in Mississippi, I remember spending weekends sometimes with friends who lived even further out in the country than I did. They only had meat on Sundays, so Sunday was a big deal because after church they sat down for a big meal and it had meat. And I thought, hmmm, if he’s in an orphanage he’s probably never had meat.
“So when the boys are kidding him and say, hey, today’s your birthday, you should ask for meat, he doesn’t even know what meat is. All the kids start laughing, so they go through this song that’s this big tap number called ‘Meat on the Bones,’ explaining what a chicken is, what a cow is, and what those produce, like hot wings and gumbo and pork chops and barbecue ribs. It’s a very fun song.”
“Twist” is and isn’t different from “Oliver Twist.”
“The elements of deceit and some of the characters you feel most connected to are still there, but everything else is very loosely based on [Dickens]. Rather than picking pockets, they’re running rum because it’s during Prohibition. So if you’re a Dickens fan, you would definitely know it’s a new version, like the black version was to ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s more of a family, New American version of ‘Oliver Twist.’”
The lead character, the son of a black song-and-dance man and a white aristocrat mom, is mixed race. There are implications about today in that.
“The whites don’t accept him, and the blacks don’t accept him. It’s like Debbie [Allen] says: ‘That’s still what we’re trying to get together today.’ So it’s still relevant now.
“I was with Stevie Wonder in a restaurant a couple of months ago, and he said that he was distraught. He said, ‘You know, with Obama in office right now, there’s such a short window of time to ever have some healing in this whole racial thing. … And it’s just not happening, not happening fast enough.’”
“Twist” is being billed as a world premiere, but this isn’t the first staging.
“We did a small run several years ago [1996 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J.], just to see what the book was like. People were standing up every night. It was an emotional journey. But that was [more than] 10 years ago, different director, everything was different.”
As a co-producer, she exerted her will in assembling the creative team at the Alliance.
“I felt like this time we were going all the way. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s do it in a regional [theater] and see how it goes, and in a few years, da-da-da.’ No, to me this was like, we’re going all the way [to Broadway] or nothing, go for broke. And I wasn’t going to settle with [being told by anyone], whether in casting or direction or choreography, ‘Well, they have to be this seven-time Tony-award winning director or actor…’
“I wasn’t going to have to say, ‘Boy, I really settled for that.’ Because this was not the time to settle. I can go to bed at night knowing I had my choices in this show, that I had some kind of control. And if I made the wrong decision, then I made the wrong decision.”
Previews continue through Sept. 14. Opens Sept. 15, running through Oct. 3. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. Tickets, $25-$55, available at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office, 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.
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