150 years of ‘brothership’

Ask the members of the Glee Club to describe their close camaraderie, and they’ll sum it up in a word: brothership.

It’s a combination of “brotherhood” and “friendship,” and signifies the deep, lasting bonds that many members of the Glee Club maintain, long after they hang up their costumes, tuxedos, and tap shoes, and graduate from Penn.

“The bonds that are formed while you’re in the group are, by and large, strong enough to last afterwards,” says Erik Nordgren, a member of the Club since 1992 and director since 2000. “It’s a common theme, really—you see the guys who are in the Club for three or four years ... their closest friendships from college and their defining college experience is their involvement in the Glee Club.”

These are the friends who members invite to their weddings, to celebrate the birth of a child, to serenade a sweetheart during a proposal.

And it’s been that way for years. One hundred and fifty years, to be exact.

This month, the Glee Club—the University’s oldest performing arts group and the oldest continually running glee club in the country—celebrates 150 years of music, performance, and brothership. The Club will hold a special 150th Anniversary Gala with a two-act performance and party on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center. The Club performs just Act I of the show on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 in Zellerbach. Tickets are $15 for the Feb. 17 performance and $25 for the Feb. 18 show.

For the students, staff, and alumni involved in the all-male chorus, that Glee Club brothership has remained a constant throughout the decades. A document from 1872 listing the names of the young men involved in the singing group stated: “The Glee Club has done more than anything else to awaken college feeling among the class. … The Glee Club has brought us together, we have learned to know and love each other as we never could while merely meeting in the recitation room. And to it must be attributed that class spirit which has been the marvel of the other students.”

Although the group may look much different today, the feeling is still the same, says Eduardo Placer, a 1999 College graduate, former member of the Club, and stage director for the current show.

“I would argue, the sound is still the same, the way that men’s voices come together doesn’t shift,” says Placer. “There’s something beautiful and selfless about your participation in that because your individual voice is part of it for a very short period, and that sound continues and it’s bigger than you.”

Many members of the Glee Club join as freshmen, and stay attached to the group for their entire Penn experience. Some come to auditions in the fall knowing how to read music, or with experience in high school musicals under their belts. Others don’t know how to read a note.

“I came in with no idea how to read music,” says Wharton sophomore Shohom Basuthakur. “I was honestly clueless last year coming in [with] both singing and dancing.” But that’s one of the best parts about the Club, Basuthakur says: the more-skilled vocalists and musicians are willing to help the less-experienced singers so the group, as a whole, improves.

It’s yet another way that the Glee Club lives and breathes the brothership.

“The group is strong because the ensemble is strong,” says Placer. “It’s not an organization of one great singer. Thirty or 40 collective voices is what makes the group.”

There are some moments when individuals shine—and others where it’s the group’s turn to shine. “Being in the Glee Club is a humbling process because you are one of many and … it’s everyone’s voice together that makes a difference,” says Scott Ventre, a member of the Club and junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Penn’s Glee Club also distinguishes itself with its considerable repertoire of both contemporary and classical music—from The Beatles to Broadway to Beethoven. Over the years, the Club has traveled to 40 countries on five continents. Last year, they traveled to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Many other glee clubs at schools perform classical music in formal attire, grouped on stage in a traditional bow formation. While Penn’s Club does perform some pieces that way, they also put on an annual themed show, with choreography, contemporary and traditional musical numbers, and costumes. They perform a tap dance in tuxedo tails at the end of every show.

Nordgren explains this shift towards the musical comedy occurred under former longtime director Bruce Montgomery in the 1970s, when it suddenly became “uncool” to participate in the Glee Club.

“What Monty consciously did was to work to make the group relevant and popular and fun and interesting,” Nordgren says. “He really took the group from basically being a chorus that just stood there and sang, to a group that was more influenced by showmanship, doing Broadway-style theme shows, dance numbers, staging, costuming.” Titles of past comedic musical revues reveal that the Glee Club doesn’t shy away from humor, and include “Top Chef! A Soup Opera” (2010), “Glee’s Anatomy” (2007), and “Coda Nostra” (1994).

The Glee Club does perform more traditional works as well, showcasing their versatility, including Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem,” says Ned Cunningham, a senior in the College and band director. When members leave the club after three or four years, they have usually learned about 100 songs, including a core repertoire of 20 songs. “It’s really provided me with this incredible holistic music experience,” Cunningham says. “In addition to getting to play a lot of piano and a wide variety of styles, from classical, jazz, Broadway, and rock, it’s also allowed me to arrange.”

At the anniversary gala, Act I will feature 12 songs that unify 150 years of tradition, including “Hard Knock Life” (with the Jay-Z rap), the spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?,” the 1980s power pop classic “Come Sail Away” by Styx, and Bruce Montgomery’s musical treatment of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” In Act II, alumni will join the current Club on stage in a traditional concert format.
This is not a show that is solo-focused, but instead, one that highlights the brothership.

“When I graduate, I’m going to [say] Glee Club defined my college experience,” says Ventre. “[Glee Club] is just designed to keep you attached and keep you going and connect you with your friends.”

“It’s incredible,” adds Cunningham. “A lot of us say it’s the fraternity we don’t have.”

For more information on the upcoming show and 150th celebration, go to www.penngleeclub.com. To purchase tickets, go to www.pennpresents.org.

Originally published on February 16, 2012