SMASH

What: Two-hour season two premiere of the musical drama, starring Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston.

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: NBC.

"That was then and this is now," director Derek Wills tells the cast of the fictional musical "Bombshell" in the opening episode of season two of NBC's "Smash." When Derek (Jack Davenport) says that, "Bombshell" had just opened to raves out of town and is just about to take on Broadway.

It is a reminder that could apply to the series itself, which returns with a two-hour episode Tuesday night. Last year, "Smash" debuted to a big audience and critical acclaim, but as often happens after initial excitement, ratings subsequently declined. Nevertheless, the show maintained solid numbers throughout its season and ended up being NBC's top drama. The show, however, has high production values, meaning it costs money to make and needs to keep solid numbers to remain on the air. In other words, that was then and this is now.

"Smash" has multiple story lines that take audiences into the competitive, sweaty and often incestuous world of Broadway, focusing on the making of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. It stars Katharine McPhee as Karen, who as an unknown was chosen at the end of last season to play the lead role of Marilyn over her veteran competition, Ivy, played by Megan Hilty, who herself is a veteran Broadway star ("Wicked," "9 to 5").

"I love our relationship because it is on a constant roller coaster, and you never know if they're going to actually be friends," says Hilty about Karen and Ivy, who slept with her rival's boyfriend at the end of last season.

McPhee, the 2006 "American Idol" runner-up, says that at the start of season two, there won't be much interaction between the two, but "Then you'll see us come back together, and it will be interesting."

Jennifer Hudson, another "Idol" contestant, will guest star on "Smash" this season as Broadway star Veronica "Ronnie" Moore, who becomes a mentor to Karen. Hudson finished seventh in 2004 on "Idol," yet - like McPhee - is one of the show's most famous alums, winning an Oscar as best supporting actress for the 2006 movie "Dreamgirls."

"It was incredible to get to hear her up close, because she is such a force," says Hilty about Hudson. "Her voice is unlike any other. And she brought such a great energy to the set, too."

Others guesting on the show this season are Liza Minnelli, Sean Hayes and Bernadette Peters, who plays Ivy's mother.

While "Smash" looks at the behind-the-scenes intrigue of a Broadway musical, the show had its own behind-the-scenes drama. Its creator and executive producer, Theresa Rebeck, left last March, and in April was replaced by "Gossip Girl" veteran Joshua Safran.

A well-known playwright ("Seminar"), Rebeck based the character of Julia (Debra Messing), who is writing "Bombshell," on herself. It was announced that Rebeck would remain part of the show, but in an interview in November, she told the New York Observer that she and NBC didn't see eye to eye on the development of the characters and that she has no involvement in the new season.

Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, says the network is excited about the second season of "Smash" but is worried that in its new time slot it will not have as strong of a lead-in as last year, when it followed the singing/reality hit "The Voice."

"`Smash,' for us, was an unqualified success in its first season, and all I want to do is continue that into the second season," says Greenblatt. "I think, in some big ways, it's a different show, but it also is very much the same show, which you'll see more as it unfolds."

The same but different seems to be the theme the "Smash" producers are pushing.

"I don't really think it's changed that much," says Safran about the second season. "I think that the stuff from last year that you loved is still there, and the stuff from last year that maybe some people thought was, you know, a little (going off on) tangents - we looked at and we sort of tried to find a way to circle back together, but it still is the same `Smash."'

One of the criticisms of the show was that the plot was getting too involved in Julia's family life. That won't happen this year. Brian d'Arcy James, who plays Julia's husband, will exit the show after Tuesday's season premiere. There is new blood, though. Jeremy Jordan (Disney's "Newsies" on Broadway) and Andy Mientus ("Spring Awakening") play a young songwriting team working on an off-Broadway show called "Hit List."

Not all things are changing. Anjelica Huston returns as Broadway producer Eileen Rand. The Oscar-winning actress says she's "having a great time with my character.

"It's an opportunity to play a strong woman who has - if you'll forgive the word - balls. She's a go-getter in a male-oriented society," Huston says about Eileen, who questions the decision to give Karen the role of Marilyn. She doesn't think the young actress is ready for the big time.

Whether McPhee's character will keep the lead in "Bombshell" during season two will be one of the plot points to keep audiences guessing. McPhee admits that she wasn't prepared for the big time after her success on "American Idol."

"I guess I really did not know myself when I was on that show - I mean in terms of being a musician," says the actress-singer, who was raised in Sherman Oaks.

"I had no idea I would do as well as I did. But with that came huge record contracts and all that stuff. I didn't realize that I was going to suddenly have to have an identity as a musician, and I wasn't ready for that."

When "Smash" was conceived, there was talk by executive producer Steven Spielberg and others of taking "Bombshell" to Broadway when it was complete. Who knows if that will happen, but on Feb. 12 comes the release of a "Bombshell" cast recording with all 22 songs written for the fictional musical and featuring lead vocals by McPhee and Hilty.

Rob Lowman

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robert.lowman@dailynews.com

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