In the theater world, it can take years to compose and stage a musical. For “Subspace Rhapsody,” the musical episode of the Paramount (PARA)+ series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, songwriters Tom Polce and Kay Hanley were given five weeks. That’s five weeks to write and fully produce nine songs and record them with the show’s cast, itself consisting of seasoned professional vocalists, self-described “non-singers,” and karaoke casuals. Each song needed to advance the story, which was being revised by writers Bill Wolkoff and Dana Horgan throughout the process, and convey the unique emotional journeys of a range of characters that included the Strange New Worlds versions of those solidified as iconic, like Kirk, Spock, and Uhura. The episode’s place as the Star Trek franchise’s first official musical guarantees that, good or bad, it is going to be watched, listened to, and obsessed over for years and years to come. Five weeks. No pressure.
This daunting task fell to Tom Polce, a longtime staff composer at CBS Studios. In January 2022, showrunners Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso Myers consulted him to determine the practicalities of producing a musical episode. Over the next few months, Polce and the producers discussed their goals in broad strokes, determining the tone of the story and what genres of music they were interested in exploring, as well as what the purpose of the music would be in the story.
“We didn’t want the music to be superfluous,” Polce tells Observer. “We needed it to drive a narrative or character development.” Polce originally intended to take on the songwriting duties alone, but he was barely two songs into the process before realizing that both the scope and the subject matter demanded that he invite another songwriter aboard.
“It turned from six songs to nine songs rather quickly,” says Polce. “It became apparent to me on many levels that, ‘Y’know, One-Man-Band Tom, you can’t do this by yourself.’ But on top of that very pragmatic look, one of the producers’ very important guidelines was ‘We want people to cry.’ Also, several of the key pieces were going to be based around female characters. I’m a guy, and I don’t have that experience. So, aside from needing — and I’m sorry to cross franchises — a Yoda-level musician/lyricist/melodicist to work with, it also made sense to have someone who can relate to these female experiences.”
One of the names that Polce had initially floated for the project before he’d been offered the job himself was Kay Hanley, leader of the Boston-born ‘90s alt-rock band Letters to Cleo. (Polce and Hanley are longtime collaborators, Polce having played drums in Letters to Cleo, and joining in for recent shows.) In addition to Letters to Cleo and her own solo catalog, Hanley provided the singing voice for Rachel Leigh Cook’s title character in the 2001 film adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats and has composed music for children’s television shows like Doc McStuffins and DC Super Hero Girls. For Polce, bringing aboard a co-writer with whom he shares a lifelong trust and near-telepathic shorthand was a “no-brainer.”
“My head exploded,” Hanley tells Observer. “It was a combination of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Oh, no.’” Hanley, who watched Trek with her dad growing up, was keenly aware of the cultural treasures with whom she’d been trusted. “These characters are so iconic in our culture, so as a lyricist, this was a terrifying prospect. Going into this thing requires a tremendous amount of daring to suck. Just throwing out any and all ideas without worrying about falling on your face with a ‘splat.’”
Hanley, who had just been flooded out of her Los Angeles home and forced to move herself and her two pets to an AirBnB across town, used the stress of her displacement to relate to the Enterprise crew’s disorientation and vulnerability during their musical crisis.
“My baseline was total anxiety, just completely unmoored from any sense of comfort. It turned out, this was a great fucking place to start for these songs, because these characters are kind of going through the same thing.”
Polce and Hanley would meet at Hanley’s temporary residence, which they called “the treehouse,” and hammer away at the songs in the order in which they occur in the episode. Polce would arrive with a chord progression and part of a melody, to which Hanley would sketch out lyrics. By the end of a 90-minute session, they’d have the skeleton of a song. Tom would bring this sketch to his home studio and fill out the various instrumental parts while Kay refined the lyrics and melody. The following day, they’d compare notes, re-record their revised vocals, and move as quickly as possible to the next song.
“Luckily, we never had a clunker session,” says Polce, “because we didn’t have time for that.”
Each song presented unique musical and narrative challenges. Some came with specific instructions from the screenwriters regarding which characters participate in what order, plot details or terminology had to be included, or even lyrics to incorporate. The episode’s opening ensemble number, “Status Report,” came with the most guidelines, as it establishes the conceit that the Enterprise has accidentally opened a rift to an improbable reality where people spontaneously break into song. “Status Report” is a mission statement for the episode, a catchy and complex contemporary Broadway number in which the crew of the USS Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) express their befuddlement as their work routine becomes inexplicably melodious.
After the opener, the songs become less procedural and more emotional, as multiple lead characters are compelled to express their deepest feelings, some in private, others in front of their colleagues. These character-focused numbers were tailored to the strengths of their respective actors, who each met with Polce early in the songwriting process to feel out their vocal range and genre preferences. Having this reference to point towards proved to be an asset for both songwriters throughout their process, especially when writing songs for cast members who arrived with years of professional singing experience, such as singer-songwriter Christina Chong (security chief La’an Noonien-Singh).
“The first hurdle that I had to leap as a melodicist was that, a lot of times when I’m doing stuff like this, I’m singing the demos,” says Hanley, “so I’m limited to what I can sing. Thanks to Tom having recorded the actors, I knew what Christina could sing, and that she had this really huge range. For the first time, I was able to come up with melodies that I could never really sing.” Composition of Chong’s solo number, the pop ballad “How Would That Feel,” began with writing the acrobatic chorus that would show off the singer’s abilities. “From that moment, I knew this was going to be the most amazing gig I’ve ever had.”
Rebecca Romijn (first officer Una Chin-Riley) gets a pair of songs, one of which pays homage to Romijn’s fondness of Gilbert & Sullivan. The other is the solo confessional “Keeping Secrets,” in which Una recounts hiding her true nature as a genetically-enhanced Illyrian from everyone around her. At first, it seems as if she’s recommending being guarded before finally revealing the toll that this practice has taken on her. Kay Hanley equates this to the feeling of “being a woman in a man’s world.”
“That one really cut me open,” says Hanley of writing the lyrics to “Keeping Secrets.” “[Una] felt she had to be perfect, and that protected her when she was a child, so she just stuck with that, and that helped her to get where she is. But it twists at the end, and I felt really comfortable with the shift of the story. To me, this song is about me and my sisters as much as it is about her.”
Celia Rose-Gooding (Ensign Nyota Uhura) is a Tony nominee and Grammy winner for their role in Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill, and gets the show’s rousing eleven-o’clock number, “Keep Us Connected.” Here Uhura reflects on her tragic past, her abandonment issues, and finally, the pride she takes in her role as the nerve center of the Enterprise crew.
“This is the only song that I’ve ever written that made me cry” says Hanley. “This was the barn-burner.” Hanley’s verse melody was inspired by, of all things, a Gregorian chant, which would eventually be embellished into a more modern pop phrase. The song is designed to escalate gradually, to begin at the bottom of Celia Rose-Gooding’s extraordinary vocal range and peak with the highest note in their arsenal.
However, it wasn’t only the stage veterans who brought their A-game; Polce says that the cast was unanimously enthusiastic about the effort, regardless of their skill set. Anson Mount told Polce that he was not a singer, but he “likes to rock,” so Pike gets the opportunity to croon in his comedic duet with guest star Melanie Scrofano (Captain Marie Batel), “Private Conversation” and to put some grit into his vocal performance during the grand finale. Paul Wesley, who portrays the upstart Lt. Commander Jim Kirk, was doubtful of his ability to keep up with his castmates’ vocal talents, but holds his own with Romijn in their duet.
“Everybody sings everything,” says Polce. “It’s no different from any pop record I’ve ever made, there was no manufacturing of sound.”
The script called for both Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) and science officer Spock (Ethan Peck) to each receive a solo, following the dissolution of the romantic relationship that had been brewing throughout the season. For Chapel, the news that she’s been accepted into a prestigious fellowship that will take her away from the Enterprise — and Spock — is an affirmation of her life’s work, a reason to celebrate and bask in her own self-confidence. For Spock, it’s a devastating development, a reminder that their romance is more important to him than it is to her. Chapel’s song, “I’m Ready,” needed to work on both levels, as a confident, jazzy “I Am” song and as a twist of the knife for the young Vulcan to whom emotional vulnerability is a new and dangerous experiment. The writers encouraged Polce and Hanley to lean into the cruelty of the scene lyrically, and the composers accentuated this feeling by placing “I’m Ready” in a Dorian mode, the slightly menacing minor scale of “Thriller” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” It was also a fit for Jess Bush’s smokey, rock-oriented voice, which Hanley says is the cast instrument that most closely resembles her own.
When it came for Spock to deliver his own solo in response, Hanley and Polce stumbled upon the idea of making it a more somber reprise of the melody from “I’m Ready,” transformed from a danceable jazz number to something akin to a Joy Division song. Where Chapel swings, Spock sings to a square beat. This not only suits the reserved but heartbroken Spock, but also Ethan Peck’s understated low baritone.
“Ethan was one of the people who came to our meeting and said, ‘I don’t sing,’” recalls Polce, imitating Spock’s deep speaking voice. As with the rest of the cast, Polce sat down with Peck and talked about his musical tastes, picked out a song they both knew, and worked on it together to feel out the actor’s abilities. By the end of the session, Polce broke the news to him: “You can sing, my friend.”
The episode concludes with a grand finale, led by Celia Rose-Gooding but featuring the entire cast. It was also the final song to be composed, leaving the songwriters scrambling to complete their most complicated and bombastic tune before the hard deadline, the schedule overlapping with their live Letters for Cleo engagements.
“‘Keep Us Connected’ may have made Kay cry emotionally,” says Polce, “but this is the one that got me, just from the bear of working on it.”
Hanley agrees. “If this song didn’t put me in an institution, nothing will.”
“We Are One” is orchestrated power pop, a light-hearted celebration of the Enterprise crew’s trust in each other, motivated by the need to bring the troublesome subspace anomaly to critical mass by having as many voices join in as possible. To that end, Ensign Uhura opens a channel to a nearby Klingon ship that has, likewise, been trapped in the probability field and is experiencing their own musical misadventure. This leads to “Subspace Rhapsody’s” most controversial creative decision — the Klingons’ K-Pop interlude, led by former series regular Bruce “Hemmer” Horak as General Garkog. (Yes, that is also his voice.)
“We knew the Klingons had to sing, and the obvious place to go was to do opera,” says Polce, as Klingon opera is an established genre in the Trek canon. “It was Kay who came in with the ‘What if…?’ And at this point, we’re just bonkers, so we said ‘Fuck it, let’s do it!’”
The songwriters pitched the gag to the producers during their weekly meeting, who agreed on the condition that a Klingon opera verse would also be composed and recorded in case they got cold feet. This alternate take is expected to be included in the upcoming Strange New Worlds Season 2 Blu-ray collection.
Five weeks after receiving the script, Polce, Hanley, and the cast had their final product, backed by a grand, 90-piece orchestra and a 30-piece choir. Paramount kept the episode’s nature a secret for over a year, but when “Subspace Rhapsody” finally aired in the spring of 2023, it proved a critical success, and while Trek traditionalists may object to a musical episode on principle, it’s been widely embraced by the Strange New Worlds fanbase. “Subspace Rhapsody” will surely become a signature episode for this, the seventh live-action Trek spin-off, and a ritual to be reprised ad infinitum at fan conventions.
“It exceeded my expectations on every level,” says Tom Polce. A generation of Trekkies agrees.