Teenager composer, pianist lets fingers 'do the walking'

NEWPORT BEACH — At 17, Michael Fleming has written the musical score for the upcoming "Our Town" production, which will open Friday night at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa.

A junior at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Fleming put together the music in less than a month after reading Thornton Wilder's three-act play of the same name, finding inspiration in the plot.

"Our Town" is about a small community in New Hampshire called Grover's Corners; and although, in general, it's about the townspeople of that era, the story focuses on one woman, Emily Webb. She dies during childbirth and gets a rare chance to relive her 12th birthday in what has become a classic theatrical moment.

In the end, Emily comes to the conclusion that many people do not really live life while they have the chance.

The play, set in the early 1900s, earned Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. But the play was considered so depressing that the Soviets banned it while they occupied Berlin — out of fear that it could incite a wave of suicides.

Enter Fleming, center stage. He constantly plays the piano in his Newport Beach home. He's been playing the instrument since he was 5. Before he could actually sit up, his father, John Fleming, a former music teacher at University High in Irvine, propped him up in front of a toy piano.

Michael Fleming banged at the keys. And he hasn't stopped.

One day, Susan Berkompas, Vanguard production's director, heard Michael Fleming play. She said he had her at the first few chords. She suggested he write the musical score.

That propelled Fleming into action, and every day after school, he'd come home, sit down at the piano, and, as he said, "I'd let my fingers do the walking."

So moved was Fleming and so well-versed in the ebony and ivory that he composed most of the music from memory. His total time on stage will come to 45 minutes. He also will play the violin toward the end of the play.

Fleming said his ultimate goal is to someday write musical scores for Hollywood films, and so it's no surprise that one of his greatest musical influences is composer James Newton Howard, who wrote the scores for films including "Defiance," "Hidalgo," "The Village" and "Lady in the Water."

Although Fleming has been playing the piano for years and has appeared in countless concerts and performances, his score for "Our Town" will be his first. On Sunday, he will be rehearsing with the cast for the first time.

Berkompas, the chairwoman of Vanguard's theatre arts department and the university's producing artistic director, said she immediately spotted talent in Fleming.

"He a budding artist," she said. "I could definitely see he had talent and a future, so I grabbed him."

Berkompas said she's been producing and directing plays for more than two decades and has always tried to incorporate live music into her productions whenever she can.

"It really heightens the emotional action," she said. "I can't imagine one of my plays not having music, actually."

As for Fleming, some of his talent can be viewed on YouTube. One of his songs is called "Winter," and features him playing the piano with a two-person wordless choral accompaniment.

Fleming hopes to attend USC's Thornton School of Music.

Penny Fleming said she loves the fact that her son is getting to "live his dream."

Annie, Michael's younger sister, said she's proud of her brother.

"We're all so grateful to have him around," said Annie, 15. "We love to hear him play."

But be forewarned: This is a musical family, and Annie, who plays the violin, just might be next up and finding herself on center stage.

Sooner, perhaps, than she realizes.


If you go:

WHAT: "Our Town" production, a play by Thornton Wilder

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29

Where: Lyceum Theatre at Vanguard University on Fair Drive (next to the Costa Mesa Police Department)

Additional Performances: Oct. 30, Oct. 31; Nov. 4-7

Ticket information: (714) -668-6145.

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