Trey McIntyre was a Free To Be kid, too. The choreographer’s 6-foot-6-inch frame seems to fold into itself like origami as he settles into a flimsy chair, crosses his legs, and opens a water bottle. We’re sitting in a clearing at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. It’s a bright summer day, and we’re here because McIntyre’s company, the Trey McIntyre Project, is premiering a new piece inspired by Free To Be. McIntyre is nervous; tonight Thomas, Alan Alda, and Pogrebin are coming to see the show.
Based in Boise, Idaho, TMP is a well-respected touring company whose charismatic, handsome leader has become something of a rock star in his adopted hometown. It was on the company’s last visit to Jacob’s Pillow, two years ago, that the idea for “Ladies and Gentle Men” was hatched. The Aldas and the Pogrebins, who’ve remained friends since Alan and Letty met in the MediaSound studio in 1972, were visiting the festival together and came backstage to meet McIntyre after the performance.
“I was so star-struck and dizzy-headed,” McIntyre says. He told them he’s always wanted to choreograph a piece to music from the album, and the two gave their blessing. A year later, Thomas watched McIntyre’s company perform in a rainstorm at Lincoln Center Out of Doors and officially approved the project. McIntyre’s piece uses music from the original album and TV special but also new versions of Free To Be songs by tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, of Montreal, and Kimya Dawson. (Dawson sings the cover of "Glad to Have a Friend Like You" in the clip from the Jacob's Pillow production above.)
“My earliest memory,” McIntyre says, “was Free To Be coming on TV. I was born in ’69, so I must’ve been 4 or 5. My dad was a principal at a school, and he had access to technology, and he brought home a reel-to-reel video recorder. I remember we had one of those big old battleship TVs, bigger than a buffet, and he pointed the camera at the TV and recorded Free To Be. We had to be really quiet because he was recording the audio off the TV.” He laughs, marveling at the memory. “It was a part of our family! We invented the VCR just so we could watch it again.”
McIntyre’s parents divorced when he was young; his mother was a committed feminist, and his more traditional father felt left behind, he says, by the changes happening even in Wichita, Kan. Free To Be became the soundtrack to McIntyre’s childhood, and “William’s Doll” had particular meaning. “That song was so revolutionary,” he says. “It was such a dissonant message from most of what was out there. Hearing these famous people talk about this—There are other people in the world who feel that way.”
“You don’t find that song a little weird?” I ask. “How the reasons why it’s OK for William to have a doll end up being”—I search for a word that sounds less ridiculous but cannot find one—“heteronormative? Like, it’s OK to have a doll because at one point he might be a daddy, not just because sissyness is potentially positive or a way of being.”
“I hear you,” McIntyre says.
“I talked to Carole Hart about this too,” I say. “Her take on it was basically, ‘We felt like that was a bridge we could not cross in 1972. We hoped that the message in the song would mean something to kids anyway.’ And, I mean, I think it did mean a lot to gay kids anyway. In that book that Laura and Lori edited, the one you wrote a chapter for, there’s an essay by a gay scholar about his experience growing up with ‘William’s Doll’ and the ways that it felt like a cop-out. But it still really meant something, too.”
“I remember exactly the same internal conversation,” McIntyre says. “For me it was a relief because it was like, ‘Here’s the way I can explain this and be accepted by people. Here’s my side door that I can use to, like, escape this situation.’ And I could, for example, talk to my dad. ‘That’s OK, I get that. You’ll be a father one day, OK.’ And we can move on from it.”
That night at the “Ladies and Gentle Men” afterparty, before the dancing starts—there is literally no more intimidating social situation on Earth than the dance floor at Jacob’s Pillow—McIntyre and his mom pose for photos with Thomas and Pogrebin. (The Aldas have already left, and Thomas’ husband, Phil Donahue, hovers near the exit looking at his phone.) The head of Jacob’s Pillow calls McIntyre to the front of the room, where McIntyre points out his mom to the crowd. “Thank you for raising me on Free To Be!”
“Yeah, Mom!” shouts Thomas. McIntyre’s mother wipes a tear from her cheek. A few minutes later, Thomas, Pogrebin, and Donahue slip out the back door.