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Glee Club rehearsal Credit: Petra Phang , Petra Phang

Linked arm in arm in a kick line and clad in tap shoes, 41 performers take a collective deep breath before breaking into a dramatic song and dance.

The Broadway-style song details a world of travel, brotherhood, tradition and worldly entertainment. The climactic number ends with the performers striking sharp poses in a photo-ready, smile-filled formation.

So begins one of the 12-hour long rehearsals of the Penn Glee Club — the oldest performing arts group on Penn’s campus.

Founded in 1862, the Glee Club is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a gala this weekend. In honor of the milestone, it is preparing — and tirelessly rehearsing — for a special edition of its annual spring show, to be performed on Friday and Saturday.

‘Performance, Brotherhood and Tradition’

Beyond this weekend’s festivities, though, the Penn Glee Club is an organization rich with more than a century of history, tradition and legacy.

According to Penn Glee Club Director Erik Nordgren, a 2001 graduate of the Graduate School in the School of Arts and Sciences, the group is considered the oldest continuously and actively functioning glee club in the nation.

Additionally, the Penn Glee Club is historically known for being the first non-athletic organization to publicly display Penn’s colors, wearing red and blue ribbons during its first-ever performance in the 1800s.

The group’s motto consists of three words — “Performance, Brotherhood and Tradition” — and the club works these words into every aspect of its experience.

“The Glee Club is so much more than a singing group,” College senior and Penn Glee Club Vice President Stephen Chao said. “It’s a brotherhood of like-minded people that gets to do some of the coolest stuff out of any performing arts group at Penn. We get the most high-profile gigs and get to go on international tours.”

“The bonds that we form throughout the year are second to none,” he added. “These guys are my brothers.”

This brotherhood even extends to a residential setting. The Glee House, or “Glouse” located at 39th and Baltimore Avenue, serves as a place were “a group of Glee Clubbers have lived for the past few years and where we can meet, rehearse and hang out any time,” College junior and Penn Glee Club Publicity Chair Jonathan Ferrari said.

“As though they didn’t spend enough time together already, they also want to live with each other,” Nordgren added. “That’s real brotherhood.”

In addition to its regular fall and spring semester shows, the Glee Club has had the opportunity to perform annually at Penn’s convocation and graduation ceremonies, as well as in historically and culturally significant locations, such as the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, Hiroshima, Japan and impoverished sites in Colombia.

While many on campus may view the Glee Club as a “stuffy club,” according to College sophomore and Glee Club Business Manager Stephen DiGregoria, the group is “so much more than the Penn songs we sing.”

“We are proud that we are ambassadors of the University, but there is so much more to the club — we’re current, not an antiquated group of guys that sing choral things no one’s ever heard of,” he said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we can take our musicality from traditional choral pieces and bring it to contemporary pieces.”

‘That’s Entertainment!’

This weekend, around 150 Glee Club alumni will return to campus to watch current members as they put on their annual fully staged, Broadway-style production.

“It’s a magical evening that has something everyone can enjoy,” said 1999 College graduate Eduardo Placer, stage director of the production and a Penn Glee Club alumnus.

The title of this year’s show is “The Penn Glee Club’s 150th Anniversary Show: Was, Is and Always Shall Glee!”

According to Placer, the show — which follows a loose storyline of Penn Glee Club members as they delve into club archives — marks an exploration of the group’s past, present and future. Through singing, dancing and acting, the members will showcase the history and traditions of the club to audiences.

“It is a theatrical version of what is meaningful and special of the Glee Club,” Nordgren said.

The numbers span every style and genre, and are accompanied by complex choreography and lyrics filled with inside jokes about the Penn Glee Club experience.

The largest numbers include an utterly dramatic, fast-paced jazz ballet to Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” a hip-hop retelling of the hardships of being a new member in the club to Jay-Z’s “Hard-Knock Life,” a physical re-enactment of all the witty names of past spring productions and a tap-danced finale detailing the core traditions of Penn Glee Club.

“It’s funny, dramatic, emotional and visually appealing,” Nordgren said. “It promises to be a spectacular, tremendous evening.”

An extended family

For its 150th anniversary, the club is adding a second act to the show that will consist of current members singing club favorites from across the generations with Penn Glee Club alumni.

Over the years, the group has worked hard to maintain a close bond with its past members.

“We want to share this great alumni network with the club and give them the powerful message that the Penn Glee Club does not end upon graduation,” said 1999 College graduate Rob Biron, the Glee Club Graduate Club president.

1975 College graduate Gregory Suss, founder and president emeritus of the GCGC, agreed.

“The undergraduate and alumni clubs form an extended family which stays with each and every member in perpetuity,” he said.

Biron added that joining the Glee Club as a Penn undergraduate is often a lifelong commitment.

“We treat each other like we’re all still classmates in college,” he said. “It’s a great family to be a part of.”

‘Big Smiles, Straight Arms’

In preparation for this weekend’s milestone, the club members have been in rehearsal for up to 12 hours at a time, several days a week.

For members, rehearsal is an integral part of the Penn Glee Club experience.

“It’s where the bonds form,” Nordgren said. “A vast majority of the Glee Club is what audiences don’t see — it’s the blood, sweat and tears that go into getting ready for a performance.”

Throughout rehearsal, comments such as “belt it baby,” “100 percent is the new 65 percent,” “let me see big smiles, straight arms” and “it’s prime time baby-doll, super showcase time” add to the friendly, energetic feel of the club.

“A lot has come together,” Placer said. “Rehearsal is an exploration of pushing boundaries and fearlessness. It brings everybody together.”

A humbling legacy

This weekend, the hundreds of hours spent in the rehearsal studio will finally come to fruition with the club’s performance.

Current members and alumni said they are grateful to be able to take part in 150 years of glee at Penn.

“It’s humbling to be a part of something bigger and better,” Engineering junior and Penn Glee Club Webmaster Eric O’Brien said. “I feel lucky to be born at the right time to be a part of PGC during the 150th anniversary — it’s a bunch of strokes of luck and it’s amazing.”

GCGC Vice President and 2005 College graduate Alex Feldman agreed that it is humbling to be “part of a group with such a legacy — and to think that I have sung the same songs as Glee Club members 150 years ago.”

Wharton senior and Penn Glee Club President Robert Croll believes this 150th anniversary goes beyond the Glee Club itself.

“It’s the 150th birthday of performing arts at Penn,” Croll said. “As the oldest performing arts group, we are the first to reach this milestone year and we are celebrating for all of Penn’s performing arts.”


GALLERY: Glee Club then and now

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