Monty in Full  
  By Sam Hughes  
  Photography by Candace diCarlo    

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 overture.
    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.

Monty: Wow! Is this really how it all happened, how it all started 50 years ago?

He walks into the next light and begins to sing, to the tune of “All I Need Is the Girl”:

Got my tweeds pressed,

Got my best vest,

All I need now is a club …”

—From The Fool Monty, written and
directed by Bruce Montgomery, performed in February 2000

For those who have never spent any time with Bruce Montgomery—and 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 Prairie”—not to mention all those Gilbert & Sullivan operettas with the Penn Singers—may 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 little—at 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.
    Since 1959, 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.
    Example: In 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 1—half a century after he began at Penn, five weeks after the Glee Club Graduate Club’s emotional farewell concert at the Zellerbach, and 10 days after his final Commencement—the 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 Franklin’s words.) Sometime after he steps down, the University is expected to name his successor. But no one can really replace him.
    Bruce Eglinton Montgomery: The name is layered with culture and social distinction. Eglinton is the Montgomery family’s 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. Monty’s 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 five—“The Sea,” so named because he wrote it in Atlantic City—and 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 Company’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 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 work!’”
    After graduating in 1945 from Germantown Friends—where he had what amounted to private tutoring in music theory, composition, and counterpoint, as well as painting and lithography—he 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 Bethany’s Commencement address and receive an honorary degree.)
    In 1950, his father founded the Gilbert & Sullivan Players—“which, in its day, was one of the best and most famous companies in America, because they did the real thing. They didn’t hokey it up at all.” James Montgomery directed the company for five years—then, on the opening night of Patience, suffered a fatal heart attack. His dying words to his son—who was playing the role of poet Archibald Grosvenor—were, 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 father’s 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 Olympics—a “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 year’s stint as assistant to Donald T. Sheehan, Penn’s first director of public relations, before being asked by then-president Gaylord Harnwell if he would take over the University’s extracurricular musical activities. His response: “Of course!”
    It hasn’t all been song, dance and klieg lights. In 1951, he was drafted and sent to Korea. “I don’t 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 me—I 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 mind’s 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 paint—the 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 Monty—wearing a creamy tweed jacket, green vest and bow tie—showed 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.


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