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June 12, 2018

Theme and Variations

TV reboots bring new sounds to their theme music — while paying homage to the originals.

Libby Slate
  • Composer Jeff Russo conducts a scoring session for Star Trek: Discovery

    Lisette M. Azar/CBS

The theme music for the 1981–89 series Dynasty — Bill Conti's classically inflected ode to lavish living — features a soaring trumpet and a lush orchestral score.

For the 2017 Dynasty reboot on The CW, the trumpet still sounds, but in short phrases against a driving, percussive beat.

The theme for Star Trek: Discovery, the CBS All Access streaming incarnation of the original 1966–69 series, also has a contemporary feel. It begins and ends, though, with notes of the iconic fanfare by original composer Alexander Courage.

Rebooted series are familiar not only for the shows themselves, but for their theme music. The new signature tunes usually retain some aspect of the originals — but with modern twists. NBC's new Will & Grace music now has a jazzy flair; Netflix's Fuller House and One Day at a Time reboots feature snazzy new versions of their theme songs, as recorded by Carly Rae Jepsen and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, respectively.

"When you take such a beloved property, that so many people have associations with, you have an obligation to convey what that original is," Alex Kurtzman says. Now executive producer of Star Trek: Discovery, he learned that lesson the hard way with the 2010 reboot of CBS's Hawaii Five-0.

Though Morton Stevens's original Emmy-winning music is one of TV's most recognizable themes, Kurtzman recalls that for the reboot, "We went through different iterations. We said, 'Let's change the instruments.' We did an electric guitar version. It was all wrong." The current theme sounds a lot like its predecessor, horns and all.

Composer Jeff Russo, who won a 2017 Emmy for scoring FX's Fargo, says that in approaching Star Trek: Discovery, "My first thought was, 'How do I get Alexander Courage's fanfare into this main theme?' I'm a big Star Trek fan — the fanfare was synonymous with the show."

He used the piece to frame a new theme that expresses commonality and connection, played by a 64-piece orchestra. A choir, he says, provides "a weighty feel, a grandness," during a visual sequence in which the spaceship Discovery emerges from a blossoming flower.

The Star Trek: Discovery theme runs about 90 seconds. The rebooted Dynasty's music more closely reflects today's shorter themes, with versions that run 30, 15 and five seconds. "It's aimed at a different generation," composer Paul Leonard-Morgan says. "You're taking Bill Conti's theme and bringing it up to date for a modern audience."

A 2016 Emmy nominee for scoring CBS's Limitless (and a fan of the original Dynasty), Leonard-Morgan used drums, synths and an '80s-style bass line inspired by songs from Donna Summer and Depeche Mode. A small ensemble recorded the score — "A big orchestra would have made it too glossy" — and L.A. Philharmonic principal trumpet Thomas Hooten played the well-known melody.

Leonard-Morgan then sampled portions of the trumpet line to create short phrases. Showrunner Sallie Patrick, who previously worked with Leonard-Morgan on Limitless, says the theme "has more of the attitude and swagger we're going for."

Fan feedback has been positive. "We can only use the theme when we have time," Leonard-Morgan says. "When we don't, I'll get emails and Facebook posts saying, 'We want to hear your music.'"


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018


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