Despite the popular buzz created by TV's hit show "Glee," being part of a glee club — even one as prestigious as Harvard's — is "still pretty nerdy," Sam Jack says with a laugh.
"What 'Glee' does is celebrate the nerdiness of it. It makes nerdiness likable," says Jack, a native Wichitan who graduated from Goddard schools and is now a graduating senior at Harvard with four years of glee club under his belt.
He'll be coming back to Wichita next weekend with the famed choir for the first performance here in 20 years.
"I like to sing, and the social empowerment of the glee club is undeniable," Jack says. "But we don't have any particular celebrity cachet on campus because of 'Glee.' There's no illusion that it bowls people over."
But Harvard Glee Club, founded in 1858 and known as the oldest college choir in the country, commands international respect and critical acclaim when the 60 men raise their voices as one in tight harmony for flawless performances of mostly classical and sacred music. The group has also inspired such composers as Francis Poulenc, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson and even the satirist P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schickele) to write works for it.
A 15-member group-within-the-group, called Glee Club Lite, performs pop music and showtunes.
"That's more like what people expect because of 'Glee,' except that we don't do choreography," says Jack, also a member of the smaller group. "We sing the same sorts of songs — we're doing a Barenaked Ladies number in Wichita — and we may bob around, but we don't dance."
The Harvard Glee Club was the first college choir to tour in Europe beginning in 1921 at the invitation of the French government. Since then, it's been all over Europe, Asia and Australia. In 1956, it began making an annual 10-day spring tour across the United States and Canada.
Wichita will be the first stop for this year's five-city tour through the heartland and south with a concert Friday at Wichita East High. The show, underwritten by the Irene Vickers Baker Trust, is a benefit for Wichita Children's Theatre and Dance Center. The East High venue is significant, says children's theater executive director Monica Flynn, because that's where her group found its earliest home. The theater is now in its own building at 202 Lulu.
Jack is pleased this appearance will help the local children's theater because he grew up in it.
"I wrote the e-mail that got the ball rolling," he says. "I wanted to give back because the children's theater broke me out of my shell. I was a shy kid and they gave me the confidence to perform in public that will stay with me the rest of my life."
Flynn recalls Jack as a 6-year-old making his debut as a baby angel in "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," a show that has become an annual tradition for the group.
"He was a very shy, very smart fellow when he first began coming with his grandfather. He always had his nose in a book — and there were some pretty major books," Flynn recalls. "What was funny is that when he started to drive, he got lost coming to the theater. Even though his grandfather had brought him here every week for years, he had never looked up from his book to learn the way."
Flynn says Jack returned to "Pageant" for 11 years in a row, eventually playing most every role, until he went away to Harvard. Local audiences also remember him as Schroeder the piano player in "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and for his revue solo, "Mr. Cellophane" from "Chicago." Besides children's theater, he also played in the Goddard High Orchestra and sang with the Goddard Madrigals.
When Jack arrived at Harvard, he auditioned for the various school orchestras but didn't make the cut. His aunt, a Harvard alum, suggested he try the glee club instead. To his surprise — and later, delight — he made it.
"It isn't a class. It isn't a major. It's an extracurricular activity, so it's like a hobby with quite a time commitment," Jack says.
Harvard's biggest glee rivals are from Princeton and Yale (the famous Whiffenpoofs), and Jack relishes the annual musical competitive camaraderie, which has become tied to the rival football games.
"For the past 80 years or so, the glee clubs face off the night before the football games," Jack says. "It gets pretty rowdy. It's pretty exciting."
A writer and a poet, Jack will receive his bachelor's degree in English this spring. His senior thesis is a book of poetry he's been working on for a year. He has applied for graduate studies and eventually hopes to teach creative writing and poetry while pursuing publication of his own works.
"No matter what I do, music will always be part of my life because I found that it's something I really enjoy. I will always be part of a community or symphony choir."
If you go
Harvard Glee Club
What: Concert by America's oldest college choir as a benefit for Wichita Children's Theatre and Dance Center
Where: 7:30 p.m. Friday
When: East High School, 2301 E. Douglas
How much: Advance tickets $15 adults, $10 students; call 316-262-2282. At the door: $20 all seats