The Zellerbach Theatre of the
Annenberg Center. The curtain is up, and backstage, a mess of props
and wires is visible to the audience. A ghostlight plays on the
stage. From the downstage pit rows, the orchestra strikes up the
Suddenly a door to
an upstage hallway flies open; a bright light streaks across the
stage; and there, in silhouette, is the handsome, vital visage of
Bruce Montgomery. A thunderous applause mixed with shouts and cheers
greets him; it is a good two minutes before he can speak. He walks
on into pools of light.
Wow! Is this really how it all happened, how it all started 50 years
walks into the next light and begins to sing, to the tune of All
I Need Is the Girl:
my tweeds pressed,
Got my best
All I need now is a club
From The Fool Monty, written
directed by Bruce Montgomery, performed in February 2000.
those who have never spent any time with Bruce
Montgomeryand until recently, I was one of them it may be hard
to grasp just what a remarkable soul the University is losing to
retirement. At first blush, the very idea of a Philadelphia blue-blood
who goes by Monty directing blazered young men in songs like Hail
Pennsylvania and Bury Me Out on the Lone Prairienot to mention
all those Gilbert & Sullivan operettas with the Penn Singersmay
seem too retro for words. That he has been doing so for more than
four decades might be chalked up to good genes and tenacity, until
you think about it a littleat which point you realize that glee
clubs around the country have been dying off in droves since the
sixties. Keeping the program not just alive but thriving into the
new millennium could only have been pulled off by someone with extraordinary
passion, vitality and flair.
when he first took the Glee Club on the road, they have traveled
to some 30 countries on five continents, spreading the gospel of
song. Their adventures have ranged from harrowing to hilarious to
almost unbearably moving. Throughout, he has practiced what might
be described as sing-song diplomacy, winning over hearts, minds
and news media.
1989, when a mob celebrating the overthrow of the pro-American Papandreou
regime descended, loudly and somewhat menacingly, upon the Glee
Club in Syntagma Square, Monty had his singers break into the Greek
national anthem, followed by a Greek folk song. The next day, an
Athens newspaper, Apogevmatini, suggested on its front page
that the United States government would be very wise to try a 10-year
experiment of doing away with all professional diplomats and sending
the Penn Glee Club on tour. (For more travel stories, keep reading.)
At Penn, his
irresistible showmanship has been anchored by a profound attachment
to his students, who have become a kind of extended family for him.
They, in turn, regard him as somewhere between a delightful deity
and a theatrical Mr. Chips.
But even the
best shows stop running eventually, and on June 1half a century
after he began at Penn, five weeks after the Glee Club Graduate
Clubs emotional farewell concert at the Zellerbach, and 10 days
after his final Commencementthe man they call Monty will retire.
(During Commencement, the Glee Club will once again sing his Academic
Festive Anthem, which features his music and Benjamin Franklins
words.) Sometime after he steps down, the University is expected
to name his successor. But no one can really replace him.
Montgomery: The name is layered with culture and social distinction.
Eglinton is the Montgomery familys ancestral home in Scotland,
and its magnificent ruined castle inspired him to pen an eponymous
work for the Concerto Soloists Chamber Orchestra. One of his cousins
is Robert Montgomery Scott, former president of the Philadelphia
Museum of Art.
Monty was born
with a silver pitch pipe in his mouth. Both parents were opera singers:
His father, James, sang the leading tenor role in virtually every
opera in the regular repertoire, as well as all 13 extant works
by Gilbert & Sullivan; his mother, Constance, would also have
been a professional had she not forgone a career to raise the family.
Montys earliest memories are of hearing them sing the great operatic
duets together, and he acknowledges that for his entire childhood,
he was surrounded by music.
He wrote his
first piece of music when he was fiveThe Sea, so named because
he wrote it in Atlantic Cityand every Friday afternoon he would
be excused from his kindergarten class at Germantown Friends School
to hear Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
That same year, he made his stage debut in the Philadelphia Orchestra
Opera Companys production of Gilbert & Sullivans Trial
by Jury. (He played a naughty, disruptive child, and still has
the blue Kodak camera that he purchased with that first paycheck.)
He was six
when he wrote his first operetta, The King of Arabia, which included
a scene wherein the young hero received a letter from a rival kingdom.
You are invited to a war, it said. If you do not accept, you
will become lame. Young Monty of Arabia delivered a ringing denunciation
of war; fell to the ground, lame; then, after a silent, kneeling
prayer, got up, shook his legs and exclaimed: Golly, that was quick
in 1945 from Germantown Friendswhere he had what amounted to private
tutoring in music theory, composition, and counterpoint, as well
as painting and lithographyhe made a last-minute decision to forgo
Yale University and its flood of returning soldiers. Instead, he
spent four blissful years at Bethany College in Kansas, studying
music composition and sculpture and painting. (Later this month,
he will deliver Bethanys Commencement address and receive an honorary
In 1950, his
father founded the Gilbert & Sullivan Playerswhich, in its
day, was one of the best and most famous companies in America, because
they did the real thing. They didnt hokey it up at all. James
Montgomery directed the company for five yearsthen, on the opening
night of Patience, suffered a fatal heart attack. His dying
words to his sonwho was playing the role of poet Archibald Grosvenorwere,
incredibly: The show goes on.
That it did.
Monty was thrown into the breach of directing while trying to be
funny as the Idyllic Poet, even as he grappled with his fathers
death. That was a little rough, he allows.
By then he
had already begun his half-century career at Penn as assistant director
of the Cultural Olympicsa terrible name for a very good program
that featured dance, drama, painting and music. When the program
was terminated in 1955, he put in a years stint as assistant to
Donald T. Sheehan, Penns first director of public relations, before
being asked by then-president Gaylord Harnwell if he would take
over the Universitys extracurricular musical activities. His response:
It hasnt all
been song, dance and klieg lights. In 1951, he was drafted and sent
to Korea. I dont usually talk too much about my Korean experience,
he says quietly. I was in the 45th infantry division; I fought
hard; I was a good soldier. The scariest day of my entire life was
my 25th birthday, as I waded ashore at Inchon, with bullets going
all around. The water was still cold, but it was warm around meI
was very scared. He had several horrible experiences, including
one in which he was literally buried alive for about 30 hours with
a dead guy in his arms, not knowing whether he would ever be found.
He still wakes up at night screaming Get me out!
But while Monty
is not one to duck questions or stifle emotion, he is hardly the
sort to dwell on unpleasantness. He alchemized his loathing of war
into Why Me?, his 1967 musical set in the Korean War, and
Herodotus Fragments, written for a full symphony orchestra
and two choruses, which the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered in
1970. (That piece was directly inspired by a visit to the pass at
Thermopylae, where in his minds eye he could still see Xerxes
arrows blocking out the sun, and where a stele still read: Stranger,
go tell the Spartans we lie here, obeying their laws.) And now,
winding up a resplendent career at Penn, he is brimming with plans
to travel and compose and paintthe latter activities, as always,
to be carried out on his private island off the coast of Maine.
Back in February,
we sat down in the living room next to the Faculty Club (where one
of his Maine watercolors hangs), and for two hours Montywearing
a creamy tweed jacket, green vest and bow tieshowed his mettle
as a raconteur. The imaginative passion that he brought to his recollections
was astonishing. On several occasions he found himself on the verge
of tears, a sentiment that was as catching as his ebullient humor.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
May/June Contents | Gazette
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Gazette Last modified 4/28/00