Megan Hilty was staring down a busy product ion schedule for season two of her hit TV series, Smash, when she felt the urge come on. Looking at the calendar, faced with the prospect of months of 16-hour work days, she desperately wanted to savor her last bit of freedom. “We have to go to Vegas,” she told her boyfriend.

Hilty is a creature of habit, so the couple’s itinerary was a greatest-hits of trips past, including brunch at Palazzo’s First Food & Bar and tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s O, which the 31-year-old actress calls “the greatest theatrical experience” she’s ever seen, gushing: “It’s people defying the laws of gravity and physics, and it’s an amazing show of the human body’s potential.” The only difference this time out were the paparazzi snapping photos of the couple taking a dip at Azure pool, not to mention the old ladies asking for photographs. “My boyfriend’s a good sport about it,” Hilty says.

Talk about hitting the jackpot. In the first season of Smash—NBC’s big gamble about the making of a Broadway show—Hilty’s Ivy Lynn was the bad girl gone even worse, a long-time chorus member itching for her moment in the spotlight. And for a minute there, things seemed to be looking up for her. Ivy was cast as Marilyn Monroe in a workshop of a new musical, Bombshell, and was even sleeping with the hot director—though her reign proved short-lived in the end. In no specific order, she lost the role, conspired against her understudy, slept with her costar’s fiancé, and capped it all off with a suicide attempt. (And to think, this season of Smash was only 13 episodes.) In a show that is sometimes criticized for taking itself too seriously, Hilty’s character seems to be the only one letting herself get into trouble.

Having grown up in a town that felt about a million miles from Broadway, perhaps this wide-eyed character was just in Hilty’s bones. She was raised in Bellevue, Washington, a music lover from an early age—despite the fact that her mother, a human resources executive at a telephone company, refused to sing to her when she was a young child. Sitting in a downtown Manhattan coffee shop, dressed in denim that hugs her very Marilyn-esque curves, Hilty explains: “My mom read this article saying tone-deaf mothers should never sing to their children because they’d be tone deaf, too.” Rather than risk it, Hilty’s mom would often plop her in front of the stereo and press play on cast albums of The Music Man and Into the Woods. Hilty heard Bernadette Peters sing and thought, I want to do that!

Voice lessons began at age 12, and she started hanging posters from her favorite operas around her room; not surprisingly, she was sometimes teased by her peers. Sipping a mint iced tea, mindlessly playing with the straw, she says, “In middle school, they used to have me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to people at lunch—on the microphone. I was like, I can’t do this. It is the nerdiest thing.” She didn’t have to worry about being uncool at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied musical theater (famous alumni include Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, and Magic Mike’s Matt Bomer). Hilty didn’t struggle to find work, either: Two months after graduation she was cast in Wicked on Broadway, understudying the role of Glinda.

If there’s one thing Smash gets right about the secret lives of Broadway newcomers, it’s the contrast between the excitement of the stage and the I-can’t-pay-my-rent quality of life. It was a magical time in Hilty’s professional life, but her personal life was not quite as glamorous: She was living in a walk-up in Astoria, Queens, and couldn’t afford any extra amenities. “I had cable in my dressing room,” she says, “but not at home!” Talk about a trial by fire: When the actress playing Glinda called out sick one night, Hilty was practically shoved onto the stage. “I was so scared,” she says. “I’d never done the show in costume with other people before. I’d never done it with the lights and the orchestra.”

Hilty performed in Wicked—on Broadway and on the road—for about four years, followed by a celebrated turn in a musical version of the hit 1980s cult movie 9 to 5 (playing the Dolly Parton role) on Broadway in 2009. But she was left wanting; like Ivy Lynn on Smash, Hilty was supremely talented but not yet a household name. “I can’t tell you how many workshops I did where people were like, ‘I love you. You’re great. But we need a star,’” she says. She returned to Los Angeles, a city she’d fallen in love with during an extended run of Wicked, to take stock of her life. “I was like, I may never work again, but I’m happy there.”

“It was hard for a good two years,” Hilty says. On CSI she played the crazy manager of Choozy’s Chicken. On The Closer she was a chesty receptionist. But these were guest spots, and the jobs were few and far between. She rarely worked, she says, “and I went in for everything.” Smash was just another audition; a friend videotaped her singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and Hilty assumed she’d never hear another word about it. Imagine her surprise when her manager, frantic, called screaming: “How tall are you? Steven Spielberg”—one of the show’s producers—“likes to know how tall people are before he watches their tapes.” Apparently, he l iked what he saw. “I was always playing the crazy bitch or the whore,” she says, with a sly smile. “Now I get to do both.”

Debra Messing plays one of the writers of Bombshell, the show-within-a-show on Smash, which gives her a front-row seat (literally) to Hilty’s extreme professionalism. “When Christian Borle and I were sitting behind our table watching Megan sing ‘Let Me Be Your Star’—the climax of the entire pilot—I realized I was in the presence of genius,” she says. “Everything about her embodiment of Marilyn in that moment was transportive. I felt like I was watching a master class in musical theater storytelling.” Borle remembers the moment clearly, too—but for a different reason. “When we were all done at the end of the day, Megan would have to go record demos and go to dance rehearsals,” he says. “Debra and I would sit behind the desk, and there’d be this dawning awareness that Megan had done all of this work and was now presenting it to us without even breaking a sweat.”

Smash was an out-of-the-box hit and a sudden staple on New York City’s streets, shooting all over town. “Strangers have no problem stopping me and saying exactly what they think of the show and the character,” Hilty says. This seems like as good a time as any to ask some of our own burning questions. On charges that the show is unrealistic, she laughs: “It’s a TV show! I’m sure doctors don’t watch Private Practice and say, That would never happen in an operating room.” On Internet chatter about her famous curves: “I went into this thinking, I’m not going to be one of those girls that turns into a waif because they’re on TV. I’m a real person. I’m not gonna go crazy over some stupid body image thing.” On, ahem, talk that she and guest star Nick Jonas took their affair off-screen, she insists it’s not true. “A lot of people were telling me I was way too old for him. I’m like, I know! The funny thing is, the rumors just kept going. I got a lot of hate-tweets for that. He has a very devoted fan base.”

At times, Smash’s off-screen drama threatened to eclipse its own story lines, and season one ended with a major shakeup: Four actors were let go. Even Theresa Rebeck, the show’s creator and playwright, departed, and Josh Safran, a veteran of Gossip Girl, was brought in to right the ship. (In a separate interview, Borle called the bloodbath nothing short of a “reboot.”) Never one to dwell on unrest, Hilty hosted a dinner party (sponsored by Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne) for her new showbiz family just days before filming began on season two. “We had all these new people,” she says. “We had endless flutes of Champagne. People got chatty real quick.”

Smash is due back on TV midseason, and while spoilers are hard to come by, here’s what Hilty can share: Season two picks up a few weeks after the finale, and Ivy is recovering from that overdose. Bombshell, the musical about Marilyn Monroe, retreats to the background as Ivy is cast in a classical piece; meanwhile her rival, Karen Cartwright (played by American Idol alum Katharine McPhee), is working on a contemporary new musical. “Ivy is getting her life back together,” Hilty says. “She’s saying, That was all crazy. Let me work on my personal and professional lives and try this in a different way.” Sean Hayes (of Will & Grace fame) guest stars, as does Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson.

With that, Hilty’s car shows up, and a look of unease about her hectic schedule flashes across her face—though only for a second. She’s due on set at Smash at 4 AM. The following day, she’s supposed to sing “America the Beautiful” at the US Open. It’s a glamorous life, despite the absurdly long work hours. When asked about her first splurge since Smash took off, she doesn’t talk about clothing or expensive jewelry, but of finally renting a Manhattan apartment with a washer and dryer.

“That’s all I need in this world,” she says with a laugh. That, and the occasional trip to Vegas.

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