t does seem preordained in a curious sort of way. Stephen Hanan, who once could have been spotted singing arias around Washington's Dupont Circle, is now singing the big splashy aria in the second act of "Cats," Broadway's colossal musical about toms and tabbies at work and play. But it hasn't exactly been a direct line from there to here.

As he tells it in his miniscule dressing room at the Winter Garden Theater, the 35-year-old Washington-born actor was deep into the life of a "tuned-in, turned-on dropout" back in 1970. "I used to walk about the streets in Washington, singing opera. I was just feeling good and demonstrating it, sort of as a counterbalance to the prevailing Nixon mentality of those years."

After the cops arrested him midsong one night, a group of friends coughed up bail and Hanan decided to head west. He wound up in San Francisco and his first day warbling Verdi and Rossini on the streets netted him $10. "I thought if I get arrested in Washington and paid in San Francisco for doing the same thing, it's obvious where I ought to be living."

So he stayed on for six years, working the Sausalito ferry terminal, "a fabulous sunny spot, crawling with tourists, the water lapping up against the pier." Before long, his Italian arias and snappy patter were earning him $250 to $300 a weekend.

Next, he bought a concertina, found a 1902 manual in a pawn shop on how to play it and went off to Mexico, where he learned the instrument while swaying in a hammock. "The concertina added to the outrageous romanticism of my act," he says, a hint of which is indicated by a photo in his dressing room from that period. (It shows him in tie-dyed bell-bottom pants, a billowing white blouse, long hair and a look of Dostoyevskian rapture on his face.)

By 1977, Hanan concluded that he'd mastered the art of street singing. "All the dock hands knew my act by heart. I felt like Carol Channing doing 'Hello, Dolly!' 500,000 times. I was ready for something else."

Hanan promptly headed for New York, landed in Joseph Papp's production of "All's Well That Ends Well" ("I carried spears in both armies"); was promoted to Joseph Papp's production of "The Taming of the Shrew" ("I had a few lines"); and graduated again to Joseph Papp's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," as Samuel, the pirate king's lieutenant ("I was next to Kevin Kline all the time").

Discounting all manner of minor reversals, that is pretty much how Hanan happened to be one of the 1,300 actors who auditioned for "Cats" last summer. It helps to know that one of the felines in that show is Gus, a rheumy old theater cat, who in his reveries is transported back to the days when he strode the stage as Growltiger, a great sawshbuckling operetta star. It also helps to know that the flashback, a wonderfully hammy highlight of Act Two complete with pirate ship and flashing swords, wasn't in the orignal London version because the creators couldn't find a suitably grandiloquent actor for the role.

Which, of course, is where Hanan's past comes in. "When director Trevor Nunn asked me about my life, I told him about about the Sausalito ferry terminal and said, 'As a matter of fact, I've brought my concertina.' He said, 'Give me something in Italian.' Well, I've never had any problem with shyness. I sang 'Funiculi, Funicula.' Andrew Lloyd Webber the composer of 'Cats' sat bolt upright."

Hanan landed the part and in rehearsals picked up a second role, dapper Bustopher Jones, the very smug cat-about-town. Life has been one big saucer of cream ever since. The New York critics singled him out for high praise and flattering prose. Agents are wooing him regularly and Hirschfeld has already caricatured him for The New York Times. (Hanan bought the original for $1,000.) For as long as he wants to cavort on the stage of the Winter Garden, feline employment is his.

"I understand why this show is a hit," he says. "People have an incredible fascination with cats. I think it's because in these chaotic times, cats have a sense of balance and serenity and seeming self-possession that people find desirable. For all the spectacle, there's a very peaceful core at the center of the show."

"It's funny. Now I react to dogs when I'm walking down the street. Particularly strays. I've come to realize that cats are very superior to dogs. Cats think dogs are goofy and awkward and stupid. So when I see a dog, that's what I find myself thinking, 'How goofy!' Then I get wary and think, 'Yeah, but he's bigger than me.' And then I go, 'Hey, wait a minute! Stephen!' "