From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
When Terri White belts out "Necessity," in the Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, audiences cheer. But as she sings "My head wants to rest in the shade .../But the landlord says, 'Your rent ain't paid!'" few might guess how those words resonate for her. Just a year ago she was spending nights on a Manhattan park bench after losing her apartment.

"I was so down, I was doing chin-ups from the gutter," White, 61, says today. The journey from homelessness to critical acclaim ("[she sings with] burly gusto and wry flair," says the New York Times) amazes even the woman who lived it. "It really has been a dream."

A performer from childhood in Palo Alto, Calif., she hit Broadway in the '70s, earning a Tony nod for Barnum. She worked steadily, but as she got older, she felt as if the theater "put me out to pasture." Recently she had a regular gig at a local piano bar, using tips to "keep my cell phone on." But in 2008 the bar closed, White split from her longtime partner and lost her apartment.

Too embarrassed to seek help from social services, White would occasionally crash on friends' couches but, for three months, spent most nights on a park bench. (She washed up and stored clothes at a local bar.) One chilly night last October, police officer David Taylor ran into White. "Her face was ashen; she looked terrified," says Taylor, who found an acquaintance to take her in.

From there, White reconnected with a friend, who offered her a gig in Key West, Fla. Soon after, she met her partner, jewelry designer Donna Barnett, who helped get White back to N.Y.C. for a Finian audition. On Nov. 1, three days after a smashing opening night, she and Barnett had a commitment ceremony. "This is what I've worked for all my life," says White. "It's been a wild ride."

TO SEE A CLIP FROM FINIAN'S RAINBOW, GO TO PEOPLE.COM/TERRISONG