Friends Sydney James Harcourt and Sara Botkin combine their skills as singers, songwriters, and performers in their viral song “Vaccinated,” which shares the importance of getting the vaccine using the catchy tune of the 1978 song “Reunited.”
Harcourt is very familiar with the notion that music can have a direct impact on society. He was a member of the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton, and can be seen in the Disney+ film version of the musical as well.
Botkin is also a singer and performer. She met Harcourt in high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a performing arts boarding school in Northern Michigan. The two became great friends at school, both sharing a love for music.
In the summer of 2001, Botkin started working at an insurance company located on the 105th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She was in the lobby waiting for the elevator when she heard the first plane strike the North Tower. She was able to escape the building safely, but shaken, and decided to leave the city and return to school. She is now the president of a wealth management firm and the mother of three children.
The friends joined forces to collaborate on “Vaccinated,” which shares the importance of getting vaccinated through fun and creative lyrics. The Knockturnal recently checked in with Sydney James Harcourt and Sara Botkin to talk about the song, the video, and more.
The Knockturnal: The two of you met in high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, what was that experience like? Did you ever make any fun videos or projects similar to “Vaccinated”?
Sara Botkin: It was the beginning of the school year and I was holding court with some fellow students, singing a riff from one of Mariah Carey’s songs. Sydney, previously unknown to me, walked up and said, “What are you singing?” Someone replied, “She’s singing the last run from ‘Vision of Love.’” Sydney replied, “The studio or unplugged version?” I stopped and looked into his eyes. Another Mariah Carey superfan; a rarity at our high-brow boarding school for the classical arts. Our connection was instant and intense, and from that day on, we spent every day together singing, laughing and talking about our dreams for the future. Both of us were teenagers living away from home, so Sydney felt like family to me. We’d go to the mall together on Saturdays, play cards in my dorm at night, shoot each other looks to try and make the other one laugh during choir rehearsal, and cross country ski in the night snow after class. During those ski sessions, we’d make up parodies of Whitney Houston songs, often falling down sideways in the snow from laughing so hard. We never made any videos though – this was the mid ‘90s, when we didn’t have easy access to recording equipment.
Sydney James Harcourt: The Academy is a magical place. I call it Hogwarts for artists. Being there and meeting someone like Sara completely changed the direction of my life. It’s very sweet of you to think I’m young enough to have had a video phone in high school. The year Sara and I met, Interlochen had gotten its first terminal computers with this new way of communicating called email. So we didn’t make any videos, or take any pictures for that matter. We did, however, make up harmonies with each other to every Mariah song that existed at the time. I remember us cross country skiing in the back-woods of campus, singing a parody version of “I’ll Be There,” Mariah – MTV Unplugged version, and staging the whole thing in the snow.
The Knockturnal: Can you talk about the inspiration behind the song? How did you get the idea and come up with the lyrics? What was the writing process like?
Sara Botkin: I took COVID very seriously from day one. I remember standing in my office with my dad and brother on March 12, 2020 – I own a financial planning firm with my family – and us deciding together that we were going to close the office, pull our children from school, and hunker down in isolation. The country followed suit a few days later, with the schools closed by the following week. My mother is a lung cancer survivor, so we were determined to do all we could to keep our family safe. 2020 was a devastating year for so many, and there were days where I would Google stuff like, “Is this the end of civilization as we know it?” Our worst nightmare came true in October, when we lost my beloved mother-in-law to COVID. She lives in Romania, but traveled to stay with us for six months out of every year to help care for our children. 2020 was the first year she didn’t come since my first son was born a decade earlier – we were afraid for her to travel during the pandemic. She was diagnosed with COVID on a Wednesday and died the following Sunday. I’m still trying to accept the idea of life without her, as she was such an integral part of our family.
In 2020 I constantly searched for positive news about vaccine development, and I celebrated that November day when Pfizer announced the high efficacy of their vaccine. When it became available in Pennsylvania to those age 65 and older, I went to work booking appointments for my parents, neighbors, friends and clients who qualified. Back in January and February, scoring a vaccine appointment was like scoring Super Bowl tickets, but I got good at the system, and ended up booking nearly 40 appointments for people who were having a hard time doing it on their own. I drove many of them to their appointments, and at each clinic, I would leave my contact information with a request to please call me if there were ever any leftover doses at the end of the day that needed willing arms. One day in early March I was in a meeting with a client when my assistant knocked on the door and told me I had an emergency call. I rushed to the phone, worried about my kids, but found the other person on the line was a nurse at a downtown clinic, informing me that she had 80 leftover doses of the vaccine and I could have one if I could get there within two hours. I was so elated and relieved to finally be vaccinated. On the night before my second shot, I was doing dishes and began singing out of pure joy. “Vaccinated and it feels so good!” A few lines came to me immediately, and all of them were from the experience I’d lived for the past year. I kept my kids at home from school all year, doing remote learning, living in fear. I really did scrub cantaloupe and all my other groceries after watching a scary YouTube video by a doctor warning that coronavirus was living on surfaces. I worried that it was the end of the world. I looked up the original “Reunited” recording and listened to it several times, and then typed out the original lyrics so that I could attempt to fill in parody lyrics that had a similar flow.
The Knockturnal: Sydney, at what point did you get involved in the project?
Sydney James Harcourt: Sara called me while she was driving in the car shortly after she had had the initial idea for the parody. She ran the chorus by me and explained that she had a neighbor who liked to sing George Michael she was going to ask, but she thought he might be an anti-vaxxer, so she called me first. After hearing just the first chorus I told her I was on board. Yeah, they were funny lyrics, but more so it felt refreshing to work on a project with a best friend that was funny and was for a good cause. We collaborated from that point forward, but honestly it felt more like me shaping Sara’s brilliant wordplay.
The Knockturnal: The video does such a great job of being both informative and powerful, but also entertaining, catchy, and fun. How did you find that balance?
Sara Botkin: I was so excited when Sydney said yes to singing the song with me. He’s gone on to really make it big and do some amazing things with Hamilton and other projects. I was kind of thinking we’d sing along to a karaoke track, share the audio with friends and family, and that would be that. It was really Sydney who said we should make a video. I told him my ten year old son was good with the iPhone and could take some shots of me. But as I listened more to what Sydney had in mind, I decided I’d better enlist some higher level help, and ended up hiring a film student from a local university. COVID is a dead serious subject, and there’s no arguing about that. Our mission was really to celebrate the joy of being vaccinated and all the optimism and hope that brings, while hopefully making people laugh.
Sydney James Harcourt: The lyrics are hilarious and informative on their own. I concentrated on really trying to embody the ridiculous exuberance that was ’70s glam, and not getting arrested for filming some sections in a supermarket that shall remain nameless. As for the balance of the fun versus the public message – I have to give the credit to our director, camera man, and editor, Zlatko Malovic who took our absurd footage and made it into the powerful message it is now.
The Knockturnal: What was the filming / production / recording process like? Was it all done remotely? How did you do it?
Sara Botkin: Sydney recorded his part in Michigan and I recorded mine in Pennsylvania. We haven’t seen each other since 2017, when he visited me while here filming a television show. Sydney sent me a list of things I’d need, like a green screen and a ring light. I told him I had no idea how to perform in a music video, and so he filmed himself doing my parts and sent it to me, which was amazing – he’s such a great actor that if he weren’t such a handsome man, I’d have been sure he was a woman singing my part! All of his mannerisms and performance choices were so funny. When I filmed in front of the green screen, I lip-synched along to the example videos he’d sent me, trying to emulate what he had done. I got permission from a local pharmacy to film at their vaccine clinic – I was thrashing around with a nurse who was pretending to give me a shot while people stared curiously. The college student I hired to film me, Zach Reed, took the project seriously and came to my house one morning with a three page shot list. The only part of the video that wasn’t authentic, really, was the wine. I don’t drink alcohol at all, but Zach suggested I whip out some wine to make light of all the drinking mom during quarantine memes that abounded during the pandemic. When we were done, we sent everything to Sydney, who worked with his producing partner, Zlatko Malovic, to put it all together.
Sydney James Harcourt: The process for filming was so remote! I’m in Northern Michigan, and Sara is in Pennsylvania. We filmed our choruses in front of a green screen so that we could appear to be in the same location. We planned our moves in advance of shooting – Sara was so nervous about it the night before that I made videos of me lip syncing all of her parts so she’d have a reference. She told me that I was more woman than her in them, which I take as a compliment. The rest of our shots were in our respective homes and neighborhoods. My neighbors were highly entertained by me washing bananas in a hazmat suit in their garage.
The Knockturnal: The video has over 3,000 views on YouTube, what do you believe the power of music is?
Sara Botkin: Well, “Reunited” was a smash hit in the ‘70s. Everyone knows it, and it’s fun to sing. I think everyone’s feeling so good right now, with case numbers declining and life moving back toward normal in the United States. I feel so much better in my day to day life knowing I’m vaccinated. Singing is what I do when I’m happy – and I think a lot of people do the same.
Sydney James Harcourt: When you can marry journalism and music successfully, it becomes one of the most powerful tools for education and the dispersal of information. Look at how Hamilton brought American history new life my making it catchy! I think though, that we also have to acknowledge the power of adding comedy to the mix. Especially when you’re dealing with something scary and tragic, it’s important to find humor in our shared experience as a human. The majority of the vaccination information out there is very dry, based in doomsday scenarios or guilt trips about why you must do this. Being able to laugh about it and celebrate having reached this point in the pandemic battle felt as important as the catchy musical cleverness.
The Knockturnal: What was your favorite part of making “Vaccinated”? Do you have a favorite scene from the music video?
Sara Botkin: My favorite part of this experience was feeling like a singer again. I went to school for music, but I ended up choosing a different career path, and I run a financial planning firm, which I love. My life is all about being a mom and running my financial firm, and there hasn’t been that much room for music. So for a couple of months, it was a joy to sing a little more and put together a project that is a force for good. I was also very happy to reconnect with Sydney. We have one of those friendships where we can always easily pick up right where we left off, even if it’s been months since we’ve spoken. He makes me laugh, and he’s always so supportive. He’s one of those people who just makes you feel good about yourself. I’ve always felt that he sees the best in me and believes in me, whatever it is that I’m doing. So I enjoyed our daily phone calls and texts about the project.
My favorite scene from the video occurs during what is also my favorite line of the song: “Right arm or left arm, honey, I don’t care…just put it in me darlin’ anywhere.” In accompanying so many people to their appointments, I knew that every nurse asks every recipient which arm they prefer. And I’d watch the patient hem and haw and then politely suggest, “Well, you write with your right arm, so maybe you’d prefer your left, in case the shot makes you sore?” And the patient would nod enthusiastically like, “Oh yes that’s a good idea, yes, my left arm please.” Meanwhile I’m standing there, wishing I could get a shot already, thinking, I wouldn’t care where they put it in! During that line Sydney is wearing a sequined suit jacket with no shirt underneath, rhythmically plucking hand sanitizer off of a grocery store shelf. It makes me laugh to think of the looks he must have gotten in that store in that get up!
Sydney James Harcourt: My favorite part was definitely reconnecting with my best friend in a way that made me feel 15 again. We’ve never recorded a single song together, and I haven’t heard Sara sing a pop song since we left school. This project has brought us and our families closer, and that is the biggest win of the whole thing. As far as a favorite scene? It’s definitely watching Sara give each of her sons one homemade cookie, then turn and sensually cram three of them in her mouth, directly at camera, chewing to the beat. I’m dead. P.S. Can we just take a moment to marvel at the fact that she’s never had an acting lesson or recorded any scene on camera ever? I’m angry.