December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

During the 20 years Louise Pitre toiled away in musical theater, there were few roles the Canadian-born actress considered beneath her. Once she wore a rabbit costume to promote toilet paper at a Toronto grocery store. She also dressed as a vitamin pill for a Shaklee company convention and sang Top 40 tunes at weddings. But there was one part Pitre refused to play: “I didn’t want to come to New York as Fantine No. 17,” she says, referring to a role she was offered in Broadway’s long-running musical Les Misérables. “I wanted to come in through the front door.”

Now that door has been flung wide open, thanks to Pitre’s critically acclaimed performance as a rock star turned single mom in this fall’s stage sensation Mamma Mia! Enlivened by a score comprising 22 hits by the ’70s Swedish pop band ABBA, Mamma Mia! has Pitre (pronounced Pee-trah), 44, flaunting what The New York Times called her “terrific pop belter’s voice”—and stopping the show—with her rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.” “When she opens her mouth to sing,” says Pitre’s onstage love interest David W. Keeley, “your skin tingles. Your heart races.”

That was certainly how ABBA songwriter and guitarist Björn Ul-vaeus felt in January 2000, when he first cast Pitre in Mamma Mia’s Toronto production. “Louise did one of the best auditions I’d ever seen,” Ulvaeus recalls. “I said, ‘Is this how it is in Canada?’ ” Broadway, however, is less receptive to unknowns, and director Phyllida Lloyd says she made Pitre audition against “the whole of New York” to hold on to her role when the show moved there in October 2000. Now, Lloyd says, “there’s something very thrilling about bringing someone new into a city that has seen everyone.”

Especially someone as unconventional as Pitre, who freely admits, “I don’t want to be a star, I want to be rich,” and longs to one day live in a stone country house with a barn. Image-conscious enough to lift free weights four times a week at the gym (the results of which can be seen in the sparkly spandex bodysuits she sports onstage), Pitre nonetheless prefers to keep her hair—which turned prematurely gray when she was 19—its natural shade of silver. “People say to me, ‘I want to thank you,’ like it’s some brave thing to do,” Pitre says. “I’m proud of it, damn it! I’ve earned every gray hair.”

The second of three children born in the small town of Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., to Guy, now 74, a retired accountant, and Madeleine, 76, a homemaker, Pitre grew up in “a house that was a real singing place,” says her sister Celine, 48, an interior designer. (Brother Renald, 40, is a machinist.)

At age 6, Pitre started piano lessons and later mastered folk tunes in her native French. By the time she landed at the University of Western Ontario in 1975, she was intent on a career as a music teacher. “I thought, ‘Singing is a nice, fun thing,’ ” she says, ” ‘but I won’t be Elton John, so I’d better teach.’ ”

Then, in her senior year, she accompanied a friend to an audition and ended up getting cast in a school production of Flicks. Additional parts followed, and after graduation, Pitre moved to Toronto to pursue a performing career. There she met conductor Douglas Sanford, now 44. They married in 1980 but split six years later (“We just had different ideas about what mattered,” she says). Although Pitre went on to starring roles in Toronto productions of musicals like Blood Brothers, she often had to supplement her income with less glamorous work, including waitressing. “It was tough for a few years,” she says. “I paid my dues.”

Mia! seems a fair reward—as does marriage to actor Joe Matheson, 39. The couple wed in 1999, two years after meeting at a Toronto theater workshop. “The director said, ‘Oh my God, the sparks are flying,’ ” Pitre recalls.

Now sharing a rented apartment in Manhattan’s theater district, Pitre and Matheson prefer walking Tasha (a German shepherd-black Labrador mix) and sharing romantic pasta dinners at home to engaging in show business frenzy. “I love shopping for her,” says Matheson, who once bought Pitre an orange-and-gold bustier. “All her girlfriends are jealous.”

But Pitre doesn’t take her good fortune for granted. “I took so long to be happy in my life,” she says. “I’m not going to waste any time. I live for today.”

Galina Espinoza

Jennifer Frey in New York City

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