In 1862, eight University of Pennsylvania undergraduate students founded the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club, the first performing arts group at the university. More men were added along the way, and their first performance, in College Hall on the Ninth Street Campus, was very well received. The Glee Club continued to gain popularity during the decades following. By the close of the nineteenth century, it had become a regular fixture at sporting games and rallies, alumni events, and chapel services, and performed traditional songs as well as original songs such as “The Red and Blue,” “Hail! Pennsylvania,” and “Fight On, Pennsylvania,” songs which themselves have become part of University of Pennsylvania tradition.
The Glee Club broke from the traditional notion of what a glee club was during their 1969-1970 season when, for the annual show, they staged an original production called “Handel with Hair,” written by Bruce Montgomery, Glee Club Director from 1956 to 2000. In this show the Glee Club combined their choral ability with theatrical showmanship, singing, dancing, and acting on elaborate sets and backed by a jazz band. The effect of this created something closer to a Broadway musical. Every season thereafter and continuing into the present day, the Glee Club’s annual show has been an original production marked by original music, complicated choreography, and clever, tongue-in-cheek dialogue that played off current events and issues. Bruce Montgomery – a man once described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “the University of Pennsylvania’s musical Renaissance man” – wrote and arranged these shows until he retired in 2000. Under the direction of current Glee Club Director C. Erik Nordgren, the Glee Club has continued to stage an original show every season, typically premiering it in February. These shows, much like their original songs of the nineteenth century, have become part of university tradition.
In 1959, the Glee Club embarked on its first international tour when it traveled to Puerto Rico. Since that time the Glee Club has embarked on several international tours, performing in over forty countries on five continents. They have performed in places as diverse as Taiwan and Bulgaria, and have performed for heads of state and schoolchildren alike. Domestically, they have performed in almost fifty states.
The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012. Its status as one of the most lauded, recognizable and well-traveled of the University of Pennsylvania’s student groups remains.