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When We Were Free to BeLooking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference It Made$

Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780807837238

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807837559_rotskoff

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Free to Be … the Music

Free to Be … the Music

(p.56) Free to Be … the Music
When We Were Free to Be

Stephen Lawrence

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes how Bruce Hart and the author were tasked to write a title song. Coming up with titles was among Bruce's special gifts. Within a few days he showed the author a lyric. “There's a land that I see where the children are free” seemed just right, an invitation to a world filled with boundless possibility. As a Sesame Street composer, the author once composed the music for seven songs in ten days. Bruce was pleased with all of them. He was motivated to work quickly so he had the luxury of throwing out early ideas if they didn't pass the overnight test: the author recorded a piece on his computer and forgot about it. The next morning, he heard it fresh, and if it wasn't good enough, out it went and he started again.

Keywords:   Bruce Hart, title song, boundless possibility, Sesame Street, overnight test

It started one day when I sat in Marlo Thomas's living room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as a group of people brainstormed the ideas that would coalesce into Free to Be … You and Me. Bruce and Carole Hart had recently introduced me to Marlo and invited me to work on their new project. The energy in the room was palpable. I knew that whatever developed from this meeting, I wanted to be part of it. I don't think we would have predicted that a timeless phenomenon was germinating in the room at that moment, but I did have a feeling that we were embarking on something bigger than deciding what to have for lunch.

All of the themes resonated within me: gender stereotypes; the importance of friendship and love; the need to express emotions; and, of course, the freedom to be who you want to be. My job as musical director would be to compose music to express these ideas. I would also arrange and conduct my own music as well as the songs written by others.

Bruce Hart and I were given the job of writing a title song. Coming up with titles was among Bruce's special gifts. Within a few days he showed me a lyric. “There's a land that I see where the children are free” seemed just right, an invitation to a world filled with boundless possibility.

I composed the music in one day. I work best—and fastest—when fighting a deadline. Early on, I discovered that stalling leads to more stalling and composing leads to more composing. As a Sesame Street composer, I once composed the music for seven songs in ten days. I was pleased with all of them. I am motivated to work quickly so I have the luxury of throwing out early ideas if they don't pass the overnight test: I record a piece into my computer—for “Free to Be,” of course, it was a tape recorder—and forget about it. The next morning, I hear it fresh, and if it's not good enough, out it goes and I start again. “Free to Be” passed the test. I knew that people of all ages would be able to hear it easily and sing it easily.

(p.57) Music and lyrics from other songwriters began to appear, and performers were recruited and matched to them. Marlo and Harry Belafonte were a perfect fit for Carol Hall's wonderful song, “Parents Are People.” The instrumental tracks for the album and television special were recorded on sixteen-track tape in New York City. Marlo's voice was recorded there, and we recorded Harry singing in Las Vegas. They were also shot lip-syncing in various locations around New York City. The rolls of tape, 2 inches wide and 10.5 inches in diameter, soon became too valuable to lose, so we never checked them with our luggage when flying. We always carried them with us. Of course, we had made backups, but in those predigital days, there was some loss in quality when tapes were duplicated. We didn't want to take any chances.

The great football player Rosey Grier was an inspired choice to sing Carol Hall's “It's All Right to Cry.” Carol had written it as a simple poetic statement on the value of expressing emotions. When I played the original arrangement for Rosey, he asked if I could add a stronger beat to it and illustrated by tapping his foot in tempo. I took his foot tapping—some might say stomping—and built the arrangement around that.

For the album, Diana Ross was set to sing my song “When We Grow Up,” with lyrics by Shelley Miller. The timing was tight, and I wrote the arrangement on the plane to California. She did the recording in one or two takes, exactly the way I wanted it. For the television version of Free to Be, this song was sung by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson. They were perfect, singing the duet exactly as I had envisioned it without a word from me.

Recordings did not always go so smoothly. Ed Kleban, who also wrote the lyrics for the Broadway show A Chorus Line, contributed the song “Let's Hear It for Babies,” a new act we created for the television special. Mel Brooks seemed an inspired choice to sing it. Mel immediately strove to make the song his own. I began to feel that the song was getting lost and tried to pull him back to the song Ed had written. After a short time, Mel left the room. Marlo entered and said, “Stephen, what are you doing?” I replied, “I'm protecting the song.” She said, “Stephen, you can't do that. That's Mel Brooks. He'll leave.” Fortunately, though, he didn't leave. The song was developed into a Busby Berkeley–style puppet production, and it became one of the highlights of the show.

(p.58) Elaine Laron wrote a beautiful poem called “The Sun and the Moon.” I was asked to set it to music, and Dionne Warwick was chosen to sing it. I had always appreciated the rich timbre of her voice and her impeccable phrasing. However, pop phrasing was not what “The Sun and the Moon” called for. As with “Let's Hear It for Babies,” this song needed to be sung pretty much as written. In the end, she sang it a little straighter than she was accustomed to and the result, in my opinion, was a perfect recording.

After completing postproduction work on the album, I started to become aware of the cultural force Free to Be would soon become. In a country that was politically and socially divided (although not as dramatically as it is today), Free to Be had a definite impact. Many young women followed the traditional path of high school, marriage, and family, and for some this was certainly a satisfying choice. But for others, it was not fulfilling. Free to Be presented a full range of possibilities.

In some parts of the country, these were radical ideas, and they elicited strong reactions. I remember thinking that this backlash could only help to sell more records. I believe one reason Free to Be is passed from generation to generation is that its message continues to be worth repeating.

I am frequently introduced to Free to Be fans, and when they learn that I contributed to it, they express gratitude for my role in bringing them this life-changing experience. My daughter, now a twenty-five-year-old Internet writer and editor, enjoyed Free to Be a great deal. Of course, her mother and I had tried early on to make her aware of the pleasures of infinite possibility. I have heard from many adults that the record remains a joy in their current lives. And I was delighted when Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the television program Inside the Actor's Studio and told the show's host, James Lipton, that singing along to Free to Be as a child had inspired her to become an actress.

When the record was first released in 1972, I phoned record stores to see if they had stocked their shelves with our album. I visited stores to see if it was placed prominently. I didn't need to worry. I think if computers and the Internet were ubiquitous in the 1970s, Free to Be would have gone viral. In a sense it has; it's just taken a little longer.