Patti Cohenour will never forget the night it rained flowers on her head. The bouquets flung from the balcony nearly knocked her over.
"It was pretty thrilling," she says of her final curtain call after 355 performances and 18 months on Broadway as the leading lady in "The Phantom of the Opera."
The ovation also soothed her shattered feelings. For, despite the mobs of admiring fans, the producer had forced her out of Andrew Lloyd Weber's blockbuster musical, much to her dismay.
Now, three weeks later, Cohenour is recounting this over a plate of strawberries at a hotel restaurant in Costa Mesa. She is here to star in Opera Pacific's revival of "My Fair Lady," a very different mega-hit from an earlier Broadway era. It opens tonight, co-starring Noel Harrison, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"My ("Phantom") contract was up, and I was not renewed," notes the actress, whose "Phantom" performances were said by some critics to eclipse those of Sarah Brightman (the original leading lady, and Weber's wife). "I was told: 'We don't have the money.' But I don't really believe that."
Cohenour pauses to contemplate a strawberry on the end of her fork. Her eyes are huge, her hair pulled back in a bun. She is wearing an aquamarine blouse with faded jeans. Though small, she seems athletic and is not nearly as fragile as the ethereal chorus singer she portrayed in "Phantom," nor as tough as the Cockney guttersnipe she'll play in "My Fair Lady."
"Cameron Mackintosh (the producer) was not good to me," she says. "There was no nurturing. The expendability factor was so high. 'We don't need this girl. We can get somebody else for a thousand a week.' It's that simple, and it just blows my mind. It was a very unhappy situation."
Still, Cohenour credits "Phantom" with propelling her beyond the ranks of the ingenues. "People think of me as a leading lady now," says the 36-year-old actress. "It means I can play my own age. If I can look 18, terrific. But there are just so many ingenue roles you can do."
Not that she minds the considerable success she has enjoyed with them. In 1986, for instance, she won a Tony nomination for her Rosa Bud in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." The year before, she won a Theatre World Award both for her Mimi in "La Boheme" (at New York's Public Theater) and for playing yet another ingenue in "Big River."
What's more, since she was Brightman's twice-a-week fill-in from the time "Phantom" premiered on Broadway until Brightman's departure six months later (when she took over completely), Cohenour can legitimately claim the show as her third consecutive outing in a Tony-winning musical. ("Drood" and "Big River" were the others.)
After such glory, though, how does it feel to take a job in a "My Fair Lady" revival that is, for all its musical grandeur, as distant from the bright lights of Broadway as Pluto from the sun?
"When you're being treated as graciously as I'm being treated, it is refreshing," she says, spearing another strawberry. "I knew 'Phantom' was coming to an end for me, and I wanted to go straight into another job. Psychologically, it was the best thing to do."
Cohenour's rise to stardom apparently wasn't easy, all her awards notwithstanding. In that respect, the plucky role of Eliza Doolittle, who climbs from the street to the height of London society, seems made to order for her.
Moreover, like Eliza, who is launched by Prof. Henry Higgins, Cohenour was touted for greater things by an academic mentor. In her case, the professor was Robert Hartung at the University of New Mexico. Hartung, a New York producer who took over the drama department when Cohenour was a student there, was appalled that she wasn't getting the roles she deserved in university productions.
"They were very seniority-minded," Cohenour recalls. "You couldn't do a role if you were a freshman, even if you had the talent for it."
Hartung held open auditions for a professional staging of "Bernstein's Mass" and promptly cast her as a principal. Then, when she was passed over for a campus version of "The Beggar's Opera," Cohenour recalls, "he sat me down in his office and said, 'Patti, I think you're wasting your time here. Go out and do it.' "
So she fled to Nashville with a songwriter friend, where they both got jobs at Opryland for $140 a week. In their free time, they made demos at recording studios to help other newcomers flog their tunes. A stint in the New Christy Minstrels followed, and a tour as a backup singer for Perry Como brought her to Los Angeles in 1978.
It took "years to get going out here," says Cohenour, who eventually decided to shift her focus to a theatrical career. Lacking an agent and a union card, she landed her first role as the lead in an Equity-waiver production of "Carnival" in Reseda.