During the academic year, Penn Glee Club members rehearse anywhere from six to 30 hours each week. That’s not including the time they spend performing—shows in the spring and fall; guest spots at University functions; singing tours around the world. As Glee Club alumnus Mark Glassman C’00 puts it: “We say that everyone who was in the Glee Club at least minored in it. Some people majored in it. And some of us are doing post-baccalaureates in it.”
Indeed, involvements with the club often last far longer than four years. Glassman has written the club’s spring show every year since he graduated, making this his 12th consecutive script. Robert Biron C’91 GGS’92 G’97 has choreographed the annual tap-dance finale since the late 1980s. Erik Nordgren joined the club as a singer in 1992 and has been its director for the last 12 years.
And then there’s the Granddaddy of Glee himself, the late Bruce Eglinton Montgomery. “Monty,” as he was re-christened at some point along the way, directed the Glee Club from 1956-2000 [“Monty in Full,” May|June 2000]—though, as several alumni say, “directed” seems like too narrow a description of his role.
“In many ways, Bruce taught us how to be men,” says Marc Platt C’79, now a prominent film and Broadway producer [“Passion Plays,” May|June 2006]. “We learned to walk tall and to be proud of who we were and what we were doing. Bruce also instilled a lot of creativity in me, and the notion of putting on a show. He cared about every performance as if it were opening night on Broadway—he was that professional and that focused. That had a tremendous impact on me.”
Most conversations with Glee Clubbers present and past invariably drift to Montgomery, who quite literally wrote the book on the Penn Glee Club. (It’s called Brothers, Sing On! and was released in 2005, three years before his death.) Even those who didn’t sing under his baton are fascinated with him—and yes, several admit, jealous that they didn’t get to know him personally.
Though there had been one foray into a staged production—1928’s Hades, Inc.—when Montgomery took over the club in 1956, they still gave traditional, stand-on-risers-in-a-blazer concerts. Not a single choreographed boy-band medley in sight. He quickly beefed up their concert schedule—by 1960, they were performing more than 50 times a year—but interest in old-school glee clubs like Penn’s had plummeted by the end of the decade.
“It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the concept of an all-male glee club was becoming an anachronism,” explains Robert Hallock W’71. “There was much less interest in choral singing or in any traditional organized activities on campus, so there was a lot of apathy—and at times antagonism—toward what were considered establishment-type activities. Bruce Montgomery was very savvy with regard to creating excitement around concerts, and he knew that we had to do something to increase interest.”
They decided to create a themed show that would be more like a night out on Broadway than an all-male choir concert. Calling it Handel with Hair, they cast aside the choral risers and built colorful wooden cubes and ladders. They swapped their dressy clothes for more modern ones: vests, shorts, bellbottom jeans. And perhaps most significantly, they closed the show with a medley (and corresponding moment of nudity) from the year’s edgiest Broadway musical, Hair.
“All over the country, glee clubs were rolling over and dying like mastodons,” Montgomery writes in Brothers, Sing On! “With Handel with Hair, we proved that we were a valid voice for more than just singing.”
Many alumni say that the transition from concerts to shows was one of Montgomery’s greatest legacies, rivaled only by the hundreds of songs he arranged for all-male voices. “Before Monty,” adds Robert Biron, “the Glee Club was a stand-up singing group. He re-energized it with a sense of theater and a larger mission of bringing music to the world through song and dance.”
After Handel with Hair, the new show format continued. Yet even as more modern music joined the club’s repertoire, Montgomery refused to oust the older, more traditional songs that he loved. “The shows became more relaxed and entertaining, but we still kept the elements of classical choral singing as at least part of what we did,” Hallock notes.
In 2000, exactly 50 years after he came to Penn, Montgomery retired. Members from that time remember it as tumultuous and sad. They worried about what would happen to their club—Monty’s club. Monty worried, too.
He decided to turn things over to his student director, a talented and devoted graduate student named Erik Nordgren. Always one to embrace his own flair for the dramatic, Montgomery wanted a Big Reveal moment to announce his successor and chose his final show with the club to do it. He writes:
“At one spot in the program—not even announced to the singers ahead of time—I mentioned to everyone that I had been blessed for some years with a truly outstanding student conductor, and I called on Erik Nordgren to conduct ‘Ride the Chariot’ while I stood in the chorus and sang. He did his customary fine job and bowed appreciatively to the enthusiastic applause. Then I put my arm around his shoulders, walked him down to the front of the stage, and said, ‘And ladies and gentlemen, now that you’ve seen Erik do what he does so well, let me re-introduce him as my successor: the next director of the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club.’ The place went wild!”
Nordgren has led the club ever since, maintaining the blend of Broadway showmanship and challenging classical music that Montgomery instituted. “He always had a knack for stagecraft and making a presentation very appealing,” Nordgren says of his predecessor. “I like to think that I’ve continued to build on the transformation that Monty began.”
Jan|Feb 2012 Contents
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