The girls in the audience scream or cry or, in more than a few instances, both. It’s the late 1960s, and a group of young men, singers, have traveled abroad to perform in Lima, Peru. The audience is too large for the city’s downtown theater, so an outdoor stage has been erected instead. After the show, screaming fans race up to the young men, clawing at their clothes and begging them for autographs.

Who are the young men inducing this fervor? The Penn Glee Club, of course.

As a club member recalled in the 1970 Penn yearbook: “We were really, truly, like celebrities. The girls swooned over us wherever we went. As we walked off from our last concert … the girls grabbed our clothing and our matriculation cards. They wanted everything we had. One girl ripped off Mr. Montgomery’s shirt front and asked him to autograph it. This attention we’ll never get at Penn.”

Maybe not, but a similar scene erupted exactly three decades later when the club traveled to Japan in 1999. “For reasons that I still do not understand, we were extraordinarily popular and extraordinarily well-received there,” Mark Glassman recalls. “Girls were screaming and crying. We would look at each other and be like, ‘Why are we the Beatles right now?’ It was a very odd phenomenon that had many of us contemplating canceling our flights home. You’re probably hard-pressed to find a group that loves itself more than the Glee Club, so it was really nice to have other people shower us with the praise that we always knew we deserved, particularly when those people were members of the opposite sex.”

Aside from introducing scripted shows, Montgomery also brought the club on its first international tour—a tradition that endures to this day. The emphasis on travel was, and still is, a big draw for new members. Biron, now the president of the Glee Club Graduate Club, still remembers the marketing flyer he received just before heading off to Penn in the late 1980s: Join the Glee Club and Sing the World … Is More Than Just a Slogan. (Monty, a one-time PR staffer at Penn, was never at a loss for a stirring call to action.)

In Brothers, Sing On!, Montgomery makes frequent reference to the club’s role as unofficial diplomats on these trips. Along with the rock-star moments, he also notes that the club’s journey to Latin America in 1969 coincided with a period of strained relations between the US and Peru. The US ambassador to Peru had warned Montgomery that traveling there could be dangerous, but the Glee Club made the trip anyway and swiftly won new admirers. In fact, a Peruvian college student approached them after a performance and said, in English: “If President Nixon had sent you before tonight, we would not know hate in governments—we would know the love of people.” And following that now-legendary trip, The New York Times wrote that the Penn Glee Club “has created greater understanding between the United States and the people of South America than would be possible at this time on higher diplomatic planes.”

Two years later, the Glee Club headed off on a 1971 European tour and captivated another continent. According to Montgomery, a Finnish singer even remarked: “You must enjoy a happy place at your university for it to send you on such a wonderful tour. But I wonder if they know how much better we understand Americans now because you have been here? We will talk about this for a long, long time.”

“We sort of refer to ourselves as being the ‘musical ambassadors’ of Penn,” Nordgren explains. “I don’t think any administrator at Penn has ever used that term, but we certainly say that about ourselves, and I think we can legitimately claim that there’s a lot of truth to that.

“There’s a cliché about music being the universal language,” he continues, “but we really see where that comes from when we travel. We perform in places where the audience clearly didn’t understand the [English] lyrics we were singing, yet they appreciate so much what we’re doing. They get it. Our performances cross the boundaries of language quite easily.”

Biron recalls one such moment from a trip to Hungary in 1990. The club stayed at a campground during summer-camp season and put together a huge campfire at sundown. “The whole Glee Club was there with dozens of these camp kids, and we wound up exchanging music with each other,” he says. “We would sing a song to them, then they would sing a song to us. That went on well into the night. At one point, this one little boy was shyly singing some song and then a little girl joined him and then a few others and a few others. We got wind that it was the Transylvanian Anthem, which had been banned for half a century. It was incredible. That’s exactly what music can do—it can break down barriers and bring everyone closer together.”

And there was the occasional non-musical crosscultural experience, too. On the same 1971 tour that earned them their Finnish fan, a Yugoslavian college student approached the guys and asked whether they were in town for an international basketball tournament. “We learned that it was an open tournament and, with a borrowed ball, we put together a team on the spot,” Montgomery writes of the incident. The impromptu Glee team came in third place.

But really, whether they’re headed overseas or just up the New Jersey Turnpike, “the locations are never that important,” Greg Suss C’75 admits. “It’s more about the experience of getting on a bus, getting on a stage, staying in a hotel. You learn a lot about each other on those trips. You see each other at best and at worst, and that promotes these deep relationships.”
 


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Touring was a big part of the Glee Club experience during Monty’s tenure and remains a big draw for new members. Over the years, the club has traveled to destinations in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and even the US West Coast, meeting international musical figures like Pablo Casals (below) and getting mobbed by female fans (not shown).

 

 

 

 





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