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Not the same old song-and-dance as ‘Smash’ returns

This Dec. 12, 2012 photo released by NBC shows Katharine McPhee, left, and Megan Hilty on the set of "Smash," premiering with a two-hour episode on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 at 9 p.m. EST on NBC. (AP Photo/NBC, Will Hart)

This Dec. 12, 2012 photo released by NBC shows Katharine McPhee, left, and Megan Hilty on the set of "Smash," premiering with a two-hour episode on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 at 9 p.m. EST on NBC. (AP Photo/NBC, Will Hart)

On with the show!

Smash is back for its second season of sassy, sexy (and musical!) Broadway derring-do, both on stage and behind the scenes.

Last season this series dramatized the blossoming of Bombshell, an exciting new musical about Marilyn Monroe, from its initial inspiration through the casting battle for the Marilyn role, with original songs and dance numbers emerging, then on to its preview engagement in Boston.

As the action resumes (with a two-hour Smash tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC), Bombshell is headed for the Great White Way. Or is it? Money, legal and creative problems all threaten to derail its ever reaching Broadway.

Of course, it should come as no surprise to any Smash fan (spoiler alert?) that Bombshell will indeed have its premiere. This was confirmed by a reporter during a December set visit to the filming of the opening night party for an upcoming episode.

It’s a posh affair, shot in the lobby of a magnificent former vaudeville theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Dozens of partiers are dressed to the nines, ginger-ale-as-champagne is flowing, and performing for the guests is the Bombshell Girls Band – a six-piece female ensemble, two of whose pieces are men in drag as a clever nod to the classic Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis comedy Some Like It Hot.

The scene includes a brief rapprochement between the two at-odds actresses who vied to be Marilyn – Karen Cartwright (played by Katharine McPhee) and Ivy Lynn (played by Megan Hilty). They join forces for a full-out rendition of the pop standard “That’s Life,” and, for its flashy duration, all is forgotten and all is well.

That’s what music can evoke in a joyous musical show, which this season Smash demonstrates as lavishly, rambunctiously (and musically!) as before.

Or maybe even more so, thanks to some judicious tweaking to the series since last season.

There’s now a heightened focus on the Broadway world and a sharp cutback of “civilian” elements, such as the family life of Bombshell lyricist Julia (played by Debra Messing).

“This isn’t domestic drama,” said Joshua Safran, the new Smash showrunner who’s ushered in the changes. “It was really important to me to not have a lot of outside story, to keep everything revolving around the musicals and the world of musicals, so that even if the characters have personal issues, it’s all about how those personal issues are impacting their work.”

This is a refinement endorsed by Christian Borle, who plays Julia’s song-writing partner Tom (and who has real-life Broadway cred: He won a Tony Award last spring for his performance in the comedy Peter and the Starcatcher).

“As somebody who has devoted a lot of time to the theater, I think it’s fair to say that your personal life becomes absorbed into that world,” Borle said. “So when you tell the dramatic story of the theater, you don’t have to go far: it’s all personal.”

Besides, the scope of Smash will extend beyond the single Broadway-bound show Bombshell.

“It will be about an entire group of theaters with shows and different actors and different composers and directors,” Safran said, “but in a tight-knit community that allows us to have stories that touch upon one another.”

The splendid cast includes the silver-throated McPhee and Hilty, along with Messing and Borle; Anjelica Huston as the never-say-die Bombshell producer; Jennifer Hudson in a multi-episode arc as a toast-of-Broadway singer; and Jack Davenport as Derek, the brilliant, womanizing director.

There are more original songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (whose credits include their Tony-winning score for the 2007 musical Hairspray). As the real-life song-writing team behind the on-screen Julia and Tom, they will have composed 31 tunes for the first two Smash seasons, including 22 infectious numbers for Bombshell itself, just released in a real-life cast recording as Bombshell: The New Marilyn Musical from Smash.

“We try to write a good song that fits the musical, while also trying to make it about the characters on the TV show. It’s a real juggling act,” Shaiman said. “And a real Rubik’s Cube: the amount of people who need to be in synch on this production is mind-boggling.”

Those people also include choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who, each episode, masterminds two dance routines.

“Sometimes you get an idea, you get into the (rehearsal) studio the next day, and you shoot it the next day,” he said. “Choreograph, shoot it, move on the next one.”

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