Free to Be… You and Me is a record album and illustrated songbook for children, first released in November 1972, and later in 1974 as a television special, featuring songs and stories from celebrities (credited as “Marlo Thomas and Friends”). Using poetry, songs, and sketches, the basic concept was to salute values such as individuality, tolerance, and happiness with one’s identity; a major thematic message is that anyone, whether a boy or a girl, can achieve anything one wants.
The album has become a cult classic across the United States amongst many who were children in the 1970s.
The original idea to create the album came from Thomas; she wanted to teach her then-young niece Dionne about life, in particular that it was OK to go against the gender stereotypes that were blatantly evident in children’s books of that time (e.g., Daddy’s a construction worker or a doctor while Mommy is a teacher or a nurse — if Mommy even works at all; boys do not play with dolls or cry; girls cannot be athletes or unmarried). The album was produced by Carole Hart, with music produced by Stephen J. Lawrence and Bruce Hart, with stories and poems directed by Alan Alda. Proceeds went to the Ms. Foundation for Women. The album has been published by Arista Records since 1983 (it was first published by Bell Records) and is still in print today. As of 2006 it had sold more than 500,000 copies. (A well-received sequel, Free to Be… A Family, was produced in 1988.)
Well-known songs include “It’s All Right to Cry,” sung by football hero Rosey Grier; the title track by the New Seekers; “Help” by Tom Smothers; “Sisters and Brothers” by The Voices of East Harlem; and “When We Grow Up” performed by Diana Ross on the album and by Roberta Flack and a teenage Michael Jackson on the special.
Other sketches, some of them animated in the television special, include “Atalanta,” narrated by Alan Alda, a retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Atalanta; “Boy Meets Girl” with Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks providing the voices for puppets resembling human babies, who use cultural gender stereotypes to try to discover which is a boy and which a girl; “William’s Doll”, a story about a boy who wants a doll, much to the dismay of his father; and “Dudley Pippin” with Billy De Wolfe.
The children pictured on the original LP jacket were schoolmates of Abigail, Robin, and David Pogrebin, the children of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, then the editor of Ms. Magazine. Most of the children attended Corlears School.
The television special first aired March 11, 1974, on ABC, earning an 18.6 rating/27 share and went on to win an Emmy. 16 mm prints of the special were also struck, and some schoolchildren from the 1970s and 1980s remember seeing the television special projected in schools in that period.
The special appeared occasionally on HBO in the 1980s. It was also seen on the cable channel TV Land, but has not been seen on any network since.
A Region 1 DVD of the television special was released in November 2001