Skip to content

UPenn Glee Club: The Brotherhood of Song.

September 4, 2011

Text by Kelsey Doenges. Images courtesy of the Penn Glee Club.

“Marry Me, McCartney” signs flooded New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on February 7th, 1964. Thousands of teenaged girls didn’t notice the cold because they were too fixated on screaming until their voices disappeared, jumping until their legs fell off, and hoping to catch even a glimpse of four boys with mop-top haircuts who would soon be stepping on to American soil, starting the British invasion.

***

Similar scenes hold true whenever the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Glee Club, a group composed of three-dozen male choral performers, touches down in a far off place.

Erik Nordgren, current director of the club, affectionately tells one tale from when he was a performer in the club.

The year was 1999 and the Penn Glee Club was on one of their overseas tours, this time in Japan. It was their last big concert of the tour, in an all-girls’ high school in Hiroshima, jammed to full capacity with around 1,500 people.

The ladies of Hiroshima became so emotional and excited that they didn’t know whether they should scream or cry. So, many just did both.

“It was literally ridiculous,” Nordgren recalls.

The Glee Club received fanfare as if they were a crazy pop sensation.

It must be something about choreographed, singing boys in Oxford button-down shirts, khaki pants, blue and red striped ties and a navy blue blazers that gets the girls going.

The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club started in 1862, long before beautiful, shiny teens pranced across your TV screens singing pop songs on Hollywood soundstages made to look like immaculate high schools in Lima, Ohio.

With the Civil War raging, eight Penn undergraduate men gathered to perform traditional glees, a type of song originating in 18th century England that employs three or more unaccompanied male voices.

At that first concert, nearly 150 years ago, the men wore blue and red ribbons from their collars, thereby becoming the first group at Penn to incorporate university colors into their uniform. The club is the oldest performing arts group at the university and is among the oldest Glee Clubs in the United States.

After nearly 150 years of performing, the Penn Glee Club still holds true to its roots, performing many traditional songs, but they also incorporate many new and different styles of music, and even dance, into their repertoire.

It’s now a cappella meets Broadway, with costumes, attitude and songs ranging from Cole Porter to The Beatles to Steve Perry, in performances that bring crowds to their feet – sometimes almost crying with joy.

Club member Reza Mirsajadi walks into the practice studio in the Platt Student Performing Arts Center on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and his cohorts instantly comment on the music book in his hand.

“It’s Etta James,” Mirsajadi says. “It’s an essential.”

His friends are impressed.

There’s a baby grand piano sitting in the corner, music scores are written on the dry erase board and a semi-circle of plastic chairs occupy in the middle of the room.

Mirsajadi sits, joining Nordgren, Scott Ventre, Mike Yee, Marcus Mundy, Jon Ferrari and other club members. These gentlemen range from rising sophomores to graduate students at the university, majoring in a variety of subjects. They hail from across the country, with members from Korea and China.

What brings them together is an appreciation for song and a love of performing.

They are dressed casually today – in shorts and T-shirts. Ventre and Nordgren, the club director since 2000, are coincidently wearing the exact same outfit: khaki cargo shorts, a maroon glee club tee shirt and running shoes. That draws a lot of good-humored ribbing from the others.

In 2009, a mostly different set of gentlemen formed the Penn Glee Club.  That crew performed for about 500 children in a crammed auditorium in Colombia. Pandemonium similar to that in Japan ensued.

According to Yee, the Glee Clubs’ former president, this was the first time these children saw people who were native English speakers, and they were completely fascinated.

“One of the girls asked if I had a girlfriend,” Yee says with a smirk and a chuckle. ”I did. I broke her heart.”

Nordgren pipes in saying, “We brought along ballpoint pens with ‘Penn Glee Club’ written on them and the kids thought they were the coolest things. They all had pens, so they all wanted autographs. But they didn’t have any paper so we were signing people’s hands.”

***

During the 19th century and early 20th, the Glee Club was a staple of campus life. The club performed at football games and other sporting contests, as well alumni events and regular shows. By the early part of the 20th century, the club grew in popularity and began performing off-campus. The club has performed around the world, in all 50 states and in more than 35 different countries. They’ve appeared on television, performed at Phillies games and recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Traditionally, every show ends with a tap routine filled with Fred Astaire flare.

“We don tap shoes, ties and tails, sometimes a cane, a kick line, the whole bamboozle,” explains Ventre, a current member.

Why put singing boys who barely dance in a pair of tap shoes?  Well it’s simple:

“Tap dancing makes a great finale,” Nordgren explains. “Like any Broadway show, there’s a kick ass finale at the end.”

But the majority of the Glees never wore a pair of tap shoes before. A lot of them never danced prior to joining the club.

Every year in the fall, Glee Club collaborates with another club on campus, Penn Dance, the university’s first performing dance company, which is primarily influenced by modern dance. Usually the show opens and closes with a combined performance from both groups, requiring these singing boys to do a little dancing.

“At first, you walk in and you’re a freshman and you are surrounded by all these kids who can’t dance,” says former choreographer and Penn Dance member, Jeanne Michele Mariani. “You are like, ‘What the frigg is this?’ But the really nice thing about Glee Club is it is full of genuinely nice people who are ready and willing to try anything.”

The supportive crew works hard to get everyone up to speed, even though many of the new recruits were really more interested in singing.

Ferrari says, “It’s really cool to see people who are first like, ‘I can’t dance. I won’t be able to do this. But after the first week, they really start to get stuff down and enjoy it, which is really fun.”

 ***

A tap finale isn’t the only tradition in a performance by the Glee Club. There is a song that has been branded into their repertoire and will be there infinitely. “Afterglow” is a Penn Glee Club original, written in 1964 by their former director of 44 years, Bruce Montgomery.

During the early days of the club, after rehearsal there would be an afterglow, a social gathering intended to connote a feeling of brotherhood, happiness and camaraderie. Montgomery wrote the song for an external performance, never expecting it to stick with them. But it has turned into a signature piece.

During every performance, Glee Club alumni flood the stage, joining current members and sing:

“And soft and low in the pale afterglow, the voices of students ring with the songs and cheers for their fair college years, the songs they loved to sing.”

3 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink
    September 5, 2011 1:10 am

    Love the sound of the Penn Glee Club. I own four of their cds, all great, but my favorite is “…In song, of course.” I have been to the last two Spring Shows at the Zellerbach Theater; both were amazing, just as professional as any Broadway show. Dvds of their fall and spring shows (and cds) can be purchased on their website: http://www.penngleeclub.com. This past Spring Show, “Guys and Balls…a Football Musical” was a hilarious spoof of the University of Transylvania football team. An older, distinguished, white-haired gentleman sat in front of me. We struck up a conversation. He was a Cornell grad. who has a grandson at Cornell, both were in glee club. He went on and on about how great the Penn Glee sounded and performed flawlessly. He said that the Cornell Glee Club never sounded that good. He must have turned around a hundred times during the show smiling in disbelief. His wife finally had to restrain him. He wanted to know how many months they had to prepare and how many weeks they would be performing. It was Feb. 17, 2011. I told them they started rehearsal after Christmas break around Jan. 10, so, it was a little over a month. He couldn’t believe it. I told him their only performances would be Feb. 17,18 & 19. He couldn’t believe it. He thought they should take the show on the road. I laughingly reminded him that these were ivy league guys taking a full course load in a pressure cooker school and some were putting in 10-15 hours a week of work/study. The week before the show is Hell Week where they practice every day from 6pm to past midnight. I don’t know how they do it. I can’t say enough good things about them; they are that good.

    • Anonymous permalink
      March 31, 2012 4:15 pm

      I guess I failed to identify myself in the above comment “Anonymous.” My name is John Nance from West Central Ohio. My son, Thomas, is Wharton, Class of 2013, and current Secretary/Librarian of the Penn Glee Club.

  2. September 6, 2011 12:02 pm

    As the sister of the late Bruce Montgomery, and as a loyal fan of the Penn Glee Club, I want to say how thrilled I am to see this wonderful article, which perfectly captures the essence of what the Glee Club is all about! Monty would be extremely proud to see that the traditions he began in 1956 are being carried out and expanded so magnificently by the current club!

    For those who don’t know about the Bruce Montgomery Foundation of the Arts, I would like to encourage you to visit our website at http://www.brucemontgomeryfoundation.org. The Foundation will be awarding grants to talented students of the performing arts and musical theater. We are publishing and marketing Bruce’s music, shows, poetry, books, choral arrangements, directors scores, and more. All royalties and revenues go directly to support the Foundation’s endowment. One of our first projects is to publish Monty’s manuscript, completed before he died, for a new Penn Song Book, which we hope to have ready for sale by the Penn Glee Club’s 150 Anniversary Gala next spring.

    The by-laws of the Bruce Montgomery Foundation for the Arts include a clause that gives special consideration to the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club in the awarding of grants for as long as the organization remains true to Monty’s artistic vision. So far, they are doing so brilliantly! Kudo’s to Erik Nordgren and the Penn Glee Club, and best wishes for a banner 2011-2012 Season!

    Liz (Montgomery) Thomas

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: