Over a leisurely breakfast in Beverly Hills, a wiry Frenchman nervously puffs Gitanes while his wife pores over the script of a Broadway musical. Finally Raquel Welch, 41, tosses her auburn curls and gasps, "This woman is a bitch! Do you really think I can play her?" "Darling," replies her third husband, journalist André Weinfeld, 34, "you'll be perfect!"

CUT TO...Broadway! Pianos are tinkling. Rehearsal halls are clattering with dancing feet. Rumors are flying. Raquel Welch, whose last previous stage experience was in high school, has just completed a month of frantic preparations. This week, in perhaps the diciest move of her career, Raquel and her ever magnificent proscenium are filling the arch at the Palace Theatre, where she is subbing for the vacationing Lauren Bacall in the hit musical Woman of the Year.

Skeptics notwithstanding, Raquel asserts that she's "not scared" of stepping in for two weeks for Bacall, who won this year's Tony Award in the role. "Everyone said, 'Great idea. Do it,' " Raquel reports. "So I thought, 'Why not?' " Besides, she explains, "I wouldn't copy Betty Bacall. I'll do the show with my own level of energy and movement." That also means flashier costumes and more dancing.

Raquel got the job at Bacall's cut of 10 percent of the gross (or about $30,000 a week) only after Debbie Reynolds, Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith, Dinah Shore and Mary Tyler Moore all turned it down, mostly because they didn't want to follow Bacall. Lauren, 57, lobbied for pal Dina Merrill and reportedly objected to having a much younger and more exotic replacement. Insiders say she asked her producers not to invite critics to Raquel's performances and also refused joint publicity photos before Welch's opening. Yet Raquel reports that Bacall was "warm and generous" in their single dressing room encounter.

Welch is only the latest in a progression of often unlikely Hollywood types shuttling in and out of Broadway productions (see box). The point, of course, is that the TV and movie stars can lengthen the box office life of a show—and, conversely, Broadway exposure can help burnish a fledgling or fading star's career. While Raquel's ABC special, From Raquel With Love, got decent ratings last fall, this year she was eased out of an upcoming film, MGM's Cannery Row, and her list of coming attractions is short: Stunt Woman, a film she made in France (under the title L' Animal) with Jean Paul Belmondo; a January NBC movie called The Legend of Walks Far Woman; and her first record—a pop single to be released in Europe. But one place an over-40 actress can find good roles is on Broadway. "A lot of people will come to see what she looks like these days," says co-producer David Landay. "And to see whether she can do it."

Afterward Raquel plans to flee to Brazil with André "to soak in the sun so we can stop looking like endives. I love to be really brown." She and André met in Paris in 1977, when she was filming with Belmondo. Weinfeld, then writing scripts for French TV, first saw Welch at a dinner with a mutual friend. "I was so awed, I got giddy and silly," he recalls. "She had a back problem and started to stretch and arch her back sexily. I joked, 'No, don't do that to me!' " A few days later Weinfeld summoned the courage to call her. "Do you have 20 dates for tonight?" he asked. "Cancel them all. I'm taking you to dinner." At the end of the evening André gallantly gave Raquel a kiss at the door and left. "When you know it's going to be important," he explains, "you wait."

Raquel in turn was charmed by his "funny, generous, sensual spirit." By 1978 they were living together at her Beverly Hills home. For Welch that was a big step. Her previous marriages—to childhood sweetheart James Welch and producer Patrick Curtis—were "not blissful," she says. After her second divorce, in 1972, "I had always said to myself, 'Oh, you can have your romances, but don't let them in the house, whatever you do. You have to go home alone at night.' " Sixteen months ago she and André wed.

Now Raquel is serenely domesticated. She and André are hunting for a new place in New York, where her son, Damon Welch, 21, is a college student. (Her 19-year-old daughter by Welch, named Tahnee, is an aspiring photographer and actress in L.A.) Raquel says that turning 40 was not traumatic; she keeps in shape with daily yoga sessions and a diet of mostly fish, chicken and vegetables. The woman TIME called "The Nation's Number One Sex Symbol" in 1969 is also learning not to worry about her image. "Why hate it?" she shrugs. "It doesn't do me any good. The sex symbol image is there. I don't dislike it. I don't love it. It's like Mount Rushmore. It's not going to go away."