Free to Be We by Carole Hart

Aug 15, 2014

Free To Be…You and Me was born in the early stages of the second wave of Feminism.  MS magazine was publishing its first issue. And Marlo Thomas, who’d recently retired from her role as creator and star of That Girl, was looking for some stories to read to her 6-year-old niece.

She couldn’t find any that didn’t reinforce prevailing stereotypes of how boys and girls, and their moms and dads, were supposed to be, and what they were supposed to do.  She decided that she had to roll out her own. It took the form of a record album.  On vinyl.  This was 1972.

And she was looking for a woman producer who could help her.  We were with the same talent agency, and I had just won an Emmy for my work as a writer on Sesame Street, and we clicked.  She was an ardent feminist and although I completely supported the feminist agenda, I came to it with a more holistic and humanist perspective. We complimented each other in good ways.

On Sesame Street I had collaborated for the first time with my husband, Bruce Hart, a comedy writer and lyricist who ended up writing the words for their title song.  We recruited him to write our title song as well, even though we didn’t yet have a title.  He solved that problem by quickly coming up with one. The minute he said the six words “Free to Be You and Me,” I knew we’d landed!

When he and his long-time composer, Stephen Lawrence, delivered the song, we were home free.  The song put all the issues on gender liberation that we were addressing into a broader context.

The song envisioned a land where the children were encouraged to find their own authentic selves, and to honor the authentic selves in others. It took place in a land where the rivers ran free through a green country, and we were all free to be…you and me in deep connection with Our Mother Earth.

Several other songs, including “Sisters and Brothers”, sung by the Voices of East Harlem, celebrated the fact that “We are all related.” These were sub-texts that became more and more articulated as we moved into the other incarnations of Free To Be.

Several stories in the book that followed the album dealt with new issues, like peace and war in The Field, by Ann Roiphe, and the healing power of love in Three Wishes by Lucille Clifton,  The book ended with an Afterword from Kurt Vonnegut, which he saw as a manual for kids, teaching them how to live on Planet Earth.

In 1972,we began working on the ABC television special based on the album and book. We were able to add wonderful new stars to the cast, including Michael Jackson who was 14-years-old at the time.  He sang “When We Grow Up” as a duet with Roberta Flack. Following an animated version of Three Wishes, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge joined us in an actual circle to sing a round with Marlo and others called “Circle of Friends”, building on the story’s theme of friendship and connection.

The film began with a diverse group of children riding on a Merry-Go-Round we’d set up in Central Park, as the title song played and the credits rolled by.  When they were completed, the children and their horses became animated, broke away from the merry-go-round, and rode off into “the land where the children run free.”  According to the script we’d written, at the end of the show, the animated children and their horses returned to the merry-go-round and became the real children again. When we put it all together according to the script, I felt strangely unsatisfied. It didn’t feel right that after their magical journey, they would end up right where they began. I was flummoxed. More than a year of immensely rewarding work, and we’d come to this place!

And then we were saved.  Since we’d begun working on the project the NASA photos of the Earth from Space, had been released, allowing us to see the planet as we never had before. It was a major consciousness-raising moment. That image popped into my head, and I knew it was the key to where we needed to go.  We took a helicopter shot of the merry-go-round in the Park, and then pulled back revealing more and more of New York City, and then we slowly dissolved into space and finally arrived at the view of our Mother Earth. And then I heard the words sung by the Voices of East Harlem, playing over that image… “Sisters…and …Brothers”

As I participated in the dialogue at the conclusion of the recent screening in Albuquerque, I understood that we hadn’t ended. We’d only just begun. We could now focus on the work needed to become “Free To Be We” —the work we’ll be doing in the Circle for Original Thinking.

Carole Hart, a  founding member of the Circle for Original  Thinking, is a producer and writer, well known for Sesame Street (1969), Free to Be… You & Me (1974); Sooner or Later (1979); and For the Next Seven Generations ( a film on the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers).