|The glee in Glee Club actually has nothing to do with its members’ exuberance. In the case of a singing group, glee goes by another definition: a song scored for three or more voices, spanning any number of genres and typically sung without accompaniment.
“I was always drawn to the all-male choral sound,” notes Scott Ventre, the junior who currently serves as the club historian. “Men can sing very high, men can sing very low, and men can blend, too. When you listen to an all-male group like ours, you really get the full range of what a chord can sound like.”
“I wasn’t looking for the all-male sound,” Biron says. “I think the all-male sound found me. The [tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone, bass] arrangement is a wonderful part of the musical lexicon, and it’s a great sound. There are so many wonderful arrangements for T-T-B-B that it’s great to keep that strong. Having a group that can produce that sound is not as common now, but it should still be available and enjoyed.”
“There is something about the anonymity in the group—the way your voice is masked by the voice of 40 other people—that’s really magical,” adds Placer. “You produce your own individual sound, but it becomes part of something bigger. It’s humbling, and it’s really magical to give over to something like that.”
In addition to its unique all-male sound, the club is known for its enormous repertoire. By the time a Glee Clubber graduates, he’ll have learned about 100 songs, according to Nordgren. About 20 of those songs have been taught to all members since the 1950s, including the Afterglow, Grace, and Toast that Montgomery wrote and the centuries-old University spirit numbers.
“We truly have a song for every occasion,” Biron says. “When we traveled to Austria and Hungary my junior year, we would find ourselves just walking around Budapest, and we could park ourselves at a square and just start singing. We could sing for an hour straight, easy, and we did.”
That same shared musical lexicon often leads to spontaneous outbursts of song, prompted by one guy shouting out a cue line from the club’s latest show or simply holding out a first note. “Singing is what we do, and whenever we’re together, that’s what happens,” says Michael Keutmann C’05 GEd’09. “Whether it be in a car or on a bus or up on a stage, we’re singing.”
It’s not unusual to spot Glee Clubbers hanging out in small groups around Penn, even when they aren’t performing or rehearsing. Stroll around campus for a few hours, and you’ll probably see two of the guys grabbing lunch together in Così or maybe a trio waiting for crepes in Houston Hall.
“I think the Glee Club has a really special way of combining the music aspect and the social aspect,” Nordgren says. So it’s sort of like a fraternity, but with show tunes? “We do have some fraternal aspects in place for the sake of fostering brotherhood,” he responds, “which in turns improves the quality of our performances.”
As Keutmann notes, “It’s hard for me to distinguish Glee Club from college because my Glee Club friends were also my best friends, and whenever I went anywhere I was hanging out with Glee Club people.”
And because of the music that binds them, the feeling of Glee-based brotherhood transcends individual graduation years, Biron says: “When we have alumni events, alumni come from across decades—many of whom have never met before—but they can all come together and sing the same songs.”
In February, the Glee Club will celebrate its big anniversary with a gala in the Zellerbach Theater and a new show focused on its storied history. Then in May, alumni and current members will head off on a cruise—destination not yet finalized—to perform both officially and casually.
And beyond that? “Much like with Darwinism, if you can’t adapt to changing conditions, then you’ll go extinct,” Nordgren says. “One concept I can’t take credit for—Monty relayed it to me—is that the Glee Club needs to be adaptable and flexible to remain relevant. It couldn’t be the Glee Club of 1900 in 1950, and it can’t be the Glee Club of 1950 in 2000. Pop culture shifts. People’s attitudes shift. Musical tastes and cultural influences are constantly shifting, too.”
Still, even as it evolves, the club in many ways remains the same. “The thing that I think is so amazing about an institution like the Glee Club is that the sound of the group hasn’t really changed,” Placer says. “For 150 years, men ages 18-22 have come together in song. We as individuals graduate and move on, but the core sound stays the same.”
“One of the things the club likes to do a lot is talk about how old it is, especially compared to other groups at Penn or other glee clubs,” Mark Glassman adds. “It is in fact very old. But it’s not a surprise to me that it’s 150 years old, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues in very good health for the next 150 years, if not more. There really is something to be said for singing in harmony with your friends.”
Molly Petrilla C’06 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s arts&culture blog.
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 12/23/11