The “Glee” Before Glee


Mention the word “glee” while sipping coffee with friends at Starbucks and the conversation will excitedly turn to a discussion of the award-winning musical comedy-drama, Glee, on Fox and the latest exploits of Mr. Schue, the well-intentioned, but heavily conflicted sponsor/teacher of a high school glee club; Rachel, the self-proclaimed, but slightly obnoxious star; Finn, the cute quarterback turned singer; Mercedes, the jealous diva; Tina, the Goth; or Sue Sylvester, the “mannish” coach of the “Cheerios” cheerleading squad, who is the glee club’s arch-nemesis. Before parting, there will surely be an impromptu rehearsal of the remakes of the old songs performed in the latest episode followed by a frantic race to be the first to purchase them from iTunes.

Glee is based on the idea of the “glee club,” of course—but fans of the show may not know just how venerable an institution that is. The idea for a “glee club” did not originate with the creators of Glee.  While Glee may have cashed in big on the idea, glee clubs have been around for centuries, though not exactly in the form popularized on the show. 

A glee club is a musical group, historically comprised of a trio or quartet of men and women, which specializes in singing short songs, called “glees.” The term “glee club’ originated in the 18th century in England. The first glee club, actually called “Glee Club,” was founded in Harrow School, in London in 1787.

In Connecticut, at Fairfield University, glee club is the oldest and largest club on campus. The club was established in 1947, when Fairfield was an all male university, and the club remained all-male until 1987 when it became a mixed choir of both genders.  There are over 120 singers and the glee club is regarded as both a musical and social organization. The Fairfield University Glee Club performs on and off campus, as well as conducting European tours every other year.

But wait, if all “real” glee clubs are for college-age individuals, why does Glee take place at William McKinley High School?  Is Glee just another example of Hollywood hype?  Are there no glee clubs in high school?

Dr. Carole Ann Maxwell, Fairfield University’s Glee Club director, gives a glimpse into the real world of glee club life and clears the air: “When you equate it with Glee on TV, the name ‘Glee’ doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘glee club,’” she said. “What they are showing on TV is what we refer to as a show choir…which has popular music that’s done with choreography, sometimes with special lighting and scenery, that type of thing.” Maxwell said there were plenty of high schools with show choirs – they just aren’t called “glee clubs.”

Are her “glee clubbers” unpopular misfits who get blueberry slushies thrown in their faces?

“No. No.  These kids actually are – well we are really fortunate,” Maxwell said, laughing at the mental picture. “We get top-notch.”

What about dress etiquette?   

When performing, “Our men wear tuxedos, and our ladies wear long, black gowns,” she said. There is no dress code during choir practice.  Still, one will not find the Fairfield University men and women arrayed in the eclectic dress of the performers in Glee.  What?! No preppy skirts and cardigans with big animals on them, or flashy, outlandish Madonna attire, cheerleading outfits, or Goth?

While the Fairfield University Glee Club performs all kinds of music, it certainly doesn’t “Bust a Move” or “take a midnight train going anywhere.”  Maxwell said that while Glee has certainly made the image of “glee club” more upbeat and modern, her choir is a concert organization. “We’re not dancers and that type of thing and we don’t spend our life on popular music,” she said.

Instead, they perform popular music, Renaissance music , mass chorales and gospel. “It just depends on the year and the type of concerts we have scheduled,” said Maxwell.  As for sectionals, regionals, and nationals – they are non-existent in the real glee club world, where there are no competive events.

Despite the obvious differences, the Hollywood version of glee may be hyped and popularized, but it does have some things in common with real-life college glee clubs: relationships and musical expression. In the final analysis, “that’s what ‘glee’ is,” said Maxwell. “It’s a social avenue of musical expression and I have seen many marriages and life-long friendships from it.”


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