Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Free to Be" -- 40 years on

For what I think will be my last post of the year, I wanted to reflect on something I heard about a couple of weeks ago -- the 40th anniversary of Free to Be... You and Me and the impact it had on a generation of kids.    Including me, who was born the year the record was first released.

To this day, it's unbelievable that a series of stories about encouraging kids to meet their own expectations rather than that of their caregivers or "society" at large would have angered so many people.   Maybe the fact it was sponsored by Ms. Magazine was a red flag in and of itself.   The topics that it raised (gender appropriate toys and sports, interracial marriages, who should do housework, etc.)  Or that Marlo Thomas got a whole cortège of celebrities to join her in the recording studio, every one of which were derided as liberals and therefore not in the so-called "silent majority" that supposedly opposed the values the book spoke of.

Who knows?   But the album and book did have a minor but still significant part in my life.   Here's my story.

Back in the winter of 1987, during my freshman year at high school, I was learning to play the clarinet, my third instrument after classical piano and church organ.   The teacher, surprised at my knowledge of music theory (I was, without being boastful, acing the theoretical tests) was even more surprised when she learned I knew the piano.

It turned out the music teacher was putting together a performance of Free to Be... You and Me using a lot of the material from the book -- and after hearing me play a few classical pieces off the cuff, tapped me for the musical accompaniment.   The TV special spawned about two years after the book was not available, but the cassette tape was, as was a book that had the sheet music.   Having a chance to go through a book I had so much fun reading back in elementary school (during my two years in special education) was fun, but listening to the tape for the first time gave me a fresh insight I could not have anticipated.   I knew who Marlo Thomas was of course -- daughter of Danny, wife of Phil Donahue  -- but I never expected to hear Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Rita Coolidge, Dionne Warwick and others (they didn't need to be introduced, I knew the voices, simple as that).

The acting group, across all levels of high school, was a great cast and I don't think I ever had so much fun in school up to that point.   The "work in progress" performance at school (actually two campuses since at the time the freshman and sophomore levels were in one cramped building, and the junior and senior levels at another larger but half-empty campus  -- eventually the two campuses were re-merged at the latter a couple of years later) got very favourable comments from the rest of the student body who too loved the album when they were younger.

Encouraged by that, we castmates then spent the next month rearranging the numbers into a coherent one act play and took it to a city-wide high school drama contest.   Actually we were in an "out of competition" section  because the rules stipulated an "in competition" play had to be completely original. 

There were only two plays "out of competition".   One was ours.   The other, performed first, was a two person play called Next -- the 1969 story written by Terrence McNally about a man mistakenly called to the draft board who wants out, and the female drill sergeant just as determined to sign him up   I can't remember which high school, unfortunately.    Of course, our cast watched their play from the audience -- I'm still not sure if most of us had even heard of Next before -- and to be honest the one hour battle of wits was so engaging it almost completely threw off our concentration for our performance ahead and we actually had to regroup for a few minutes before setting up the backdrop and furniture, and their cast watched ours.   Afterwards backstage all of us (including the other guys), as well as the contest's organizers,   commented at the shocking but very appropriate  juxtaposition between the two, and within the same general backdrop (the conflict in Vietnam).

It's funny in a way -- Thomas and McNally.    How two completely different stories with completely different geneses could actually compliment each other.

But that's my story about "Free to Be."    And how it reaffirmed my belief and those of my classmates in the importance of sticking to one's guns and holding your ground, whether through measured optimism or carefully directed cynicism.

If we only teach our kids or younger siblings those very simple values, then we will all be truly free.   I firmly believe that.

Happy New Year, folks ... try not to get too drunk.

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