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Twisting road brings ‘Twist’ composer-lyricist to Alliance Theatre

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

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.”

Theater preview
“Twist”
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.

Tena Clark on some of her famous friends

  • Stevie Wonder: “Stevie’s who originally brought me to L.A. when I was 22 years old. He found me at a little studio in Bogalusa, La., called Studio in the Country, and he invited me to come to L.A. and understudy with him. I stayed at his mom’s house and was with him every night in the studio when he cut [the 1980 album] ‘Hotter Than July.’”
  • Aretha Franklin: “When she steps up to that mike [in the studio], within two bars, I know why she’s the Queen of Soul, why she’s iconic, why she’s on the front of Rolling Stone as the greatest singer of all time.”
  • Dionne Warwick: “From the time I was 7 years old, I listened to Dionne Warwick records. I knew every song, every lyric she ever did. To be able to write for her and produce her is very sentimental to me. And she’s still an incredible singer.”
  • Patti LaBelle: “A force of nature. . I feel like I’ve always been able to get great vocals out of her because I’ve been able to build Patti’s talent in a song without [resorting to] tricks. Patti’s such a great singer that I think a lot of producers go for the Hail Mary from the very beginning.”

  • Maya Angelou (who speaks the introduction to the 2003 box set that Clark produced, “Church: Songs of Soul & Inspiration”): “My mentor. My heart fills every time I think of her. God, when we lose that woman, we will have lost a national treasure.”
  • Debbie Allen: “We are sisters separated at birth.”

4 comments Add your comment

Jane greenberger

September 11th, 2010
10:43 pm

I saw the show today and it was thrilling…. I’d like to see it a second time and may.
I was looking for the review that was in the AJC last week and I was out of town. I’d like to read it but couldnt’ bring it up on the computer.
An absolute fantastic production. cast… dancing. singing. the lead boy was thrilling and it was such a touching production!

Tene Davis

September 16th, 2010
1:05 am

Just saw Twist tonight… opening night…it was absolutely amazing! The cast was fabulous;notably the children were truly talented. Above all, the choreograpghy was exceptional. There was never a dull moment in the play. I thoroughly enjoyed Twist and highly recommend it. Welcome to Atlanta Ms. Allen. Well done!

Evelyn Panter

September 18th, 2010
1:46 pm

I went to high school with Tena Clark and knew she was a talented musician, but what a star! The show was brilliant! Next step … Broadway, for sure! She and Debbie Allen have truly meshed their respective talents in this amazing production! The music, lyrics, choregraphy and costumes are right on!

Brian Henson

September 20th, 2010
3:04 pm

I have seen this outstanding production three times. The dancing is high energy and the singing is breathtaking (especially from the young lady who plays Della). The show is a little too long and seems to get off track at times by putting more emphasis on Della rather than the main character Twist, for whom the storyline appears to have been written. I feel the creative team will make the necessary changes to shorten the show and put more emphasis on the Twist character by adding a few sub-plots before it appears on stage elsewhere. I would have liked too see more scenes where the children performed, whereas they were an extremely talented bunch. One scene I didn’t like was Shuck it RAW!!!! For a musical so highly touted as being a “Family Show”, this number borders on being a bit too raunchy with some of the obscene dance moves in this number, especially for young audience members. Don’t want to sound like I am being negative, because I am not. This a wonderful production and by far the best the Alliance Theater has had in the last few years. This is MUST SEE before it ends!!!!!

On a side note…. I am extremely disappointed in the Alliance’s marketing of this production. I understand that the Art community has taken a major blow with public funding, however, I expected more out of Max Leventhal and Susan Booth. The lack of advance marketing of this show (tv, radio, newspaper) makes one question their leadership. In previous years, the marketing department did a wonderful job of promoting shows. I have been attending shows for years and can say without a doubt, this show has been the best in quite a few years and truly deserved more support from the Alliance.