Free to Be… You and Me, a project of the Ms. Foundation for Women, is a record album and illustrated book first released in November 1972 featuring songs and stories sung or told by celebrities of the day (credited as "Marlo Thomas and Friends") including Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Carol Channing, Michael Jackson, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy, and Diana Ross. An ABC Afterschool Special using poetry, songs, and sketches, followed two years later in March 1974. The basic concept was to encourage post-1960s gender neutrality, saluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity. A major thematic message is that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—can achieve anything.
The original idea to create the album was that of Thomas, who wanted to teach her then-young niece Dionne about life, in particular that it is acceptable to refute or reject the gender stereotypes in children's books of that time. 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 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; "Helping," a Shel Silverstein poem performed 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," co-narrated by Thomas and Alda, a retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Atalanta; "Boy Meets Girl" with Thomas and Mel Brooks providing the voices for puppets, designed, performed and manipulated by Wayland Flowers, resembling human babies, who use cultural gender stereotypes to try to discover which is a boy and which a girl; "William's Doll", based on Charlotte Zolotow's picture book about a boy whose family resists his requests for a doll until his grandmother explains that William wishes to practice being a good father; and "Dudley Pippin" with Robert Morse and Billy De Wolfe, based on stories by Phil Ressner.
The children pictured on the original LP jacket were schoolmates of Abigail, Robin, and David Pogrebin, children of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, then editor of Ms.. Most of the children attended Corlears School.
Thomas "and friends" followed Free to Be... You and Me with a 1987 sequel, Free to Be a Family, the first primetime variety show created and produced in both the United States and the Soviet Union.
The television special, produced by Free to Be Productions in association with Teru Murakami-Fred Wolf Films, Inc. and cosponsored by the Ms. Foundation, first aired March 11, 1974, on ABC. It earned 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, or the filmstrip based on the special, in their school during that period.
The special appeared occasionally on HBO in the 1980s. It was released on VHS in 1983. It was also seen on the cable channel TV Land, yet has not been aired on any network since.
A Region 1 DVD of the television special was released in November 2001, and in 2010, a newly remastered version was released with a missing scene featuring Dustin Hoffman, and other extras.