"Legends!," the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Kirkwood, had its world premiere here this week, bringing together an eager debutante and a reluctant grande dame. The deb is Dallas, just beginning to try out her role as a pre-Broadway town. The grande dame is Mary Martin, the 72-year-old musical comedy star who, according to producer Kevin Eggers, had to be intensely courted to return to the stage after eight years of semiretirement and personal loss.

As the play begins the five-month, six-city tour that could lead to Broadway in June, the story -- about two aging film stars who rise above their rivalry to attempt a Broadway comeback -- has overlapped the backstage drama. "Legends!" is practically a two-person vehicle for Martin and Carol Channing, and, during the final week of rehearsal in Los Angeles, Martin confessed some doubts about her ability to carry such a large, nonmusical role at this stage in her career.

The original Peter Pan looked pixieish as ever, in her white curls, white running shoes and stylish black sweat suit. But the golden girl of Broadway's golden age sounded somber: "After the knocks I've taken, the pits I've been in, I never thought I'd make it this far . . . I'm thrilled with Jimmy, Carol, the crew -- I'm thrilled with everyone except myself."

Her last major tour was "I Do! I Do!" in the late '60s; her last Broadway play was the short-lived "Do You Turn Somersaults?" in 1978. The death of her husband, producer Richard Halliday, in 1973 was particularly devastating, she said, because the 34-year marriage had been so intensely devoted. And it's only recently that Martin has recovered from the broken pelvis and punctured lung she suffered in a 1983 car accident that killed her longtime adviser, Ben Washer, and eventually led to the death of her best friend, Janet Gaynor.

In her autobiography, "My Heart Belongs," Martin revealed that her life as the queen of musical theater in the 1940s and '50s -- a throne she shared only with Ethel Merman -- was a hermetically sealed world of theaters, hotels and getaway homes, centered around a few cronies who gave her emotional support. Those supporters are gone now. But to her colleagues, Martin today is much the same vulnerable belle from Weatherford, Tex., who became famous cooing the double-entendres of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in 1938 and went on to play a tomboyish ingenue in "South Pacific," an ageless sprite in "Peter Pan" and a candidate for the convent in "The Sound of Music."

"Mary's a survivor, which is why we knew she had to play Leatrice," said Kirkwood, who shared the 1976 Pulitzer for "A Chorus Line." "Much of my writing has been about how people survive in this bone-crushing business. Mary is perfect for Leatrice because she seems like a sweet, old-fashioned thing on the surface. But underneath -- iron butterfly."

Martin's response was typical of her unassuming, little-ole-Texas-gal persona: "I just hope I don't disappoint Jimmy by not surviving this show."

She said she's found it hard to memorize her lines without the songs she usually uses as scriptural guideposts, and there were signs of cold panic among the company in Los Angeles. Martin's shaky mastery of the script was a factor, company sources say, in the last-minute cancellation of the first Dallas preview last Monday. But the show opened Thursday without flubs.

The production returns to Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater for an eight-week run Jan. 23, and then is scheduled to move to New Orleans, San Antonio, Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

In interviews, Martin said several times, "I never really wanted to do this play." And according to Eggers, a record and television producer attempting his first theatrical venture, "We had to woo her every inch of the way." There was another reason that the negotiations seemed like a long Victorian courtship: Martin disliked Leatrice's salty language. As Martin remembers it, "Too many four-letter words, I sent the script back after Page 6."

The play was culled, Kirkwood said, from conversations he overheard as the child of silent film star Lila Lee and stage actor James Kirkwood, who played host to some of Hollywood's most celebrated and sharp-tongued divas in the '40s.

The 55-year-old playwright said, "It's a comedy about two bitchy women on the verge of killing each other. Too proud to admit how much this comeback means to them -- how much they need each other."

After Martin rejected the script, the courtship resumed. Kirkwood wrote what Eggers calls "an outrageous love letter" to Martin, telling her that Broadway generally -- and his script particularly -- needed her. More emotional pressure was applied when Cheryl Crawford, the octogenarian producer who'd given Martin her first lead in "One Touch of Venus," joined the team after hearing a reading of the play at Actors Studio.

For good measure, Kirkwood sent Martin "almost everything I've ever written," several books and plays. Because she happened to be embarking on a grueling travel itinerary, she said, she read it all on airplanes. She came to like Kirkwood as a writer, and began to reconsider.

But she had two conditions, Eggers said. One was to choose a costar -- who turned out to be her old friend Channing, who used to slip next door from her Broadway debut, "Lend an Ear," and catch Martin's finale in "South Pacific." Like Martin, Channing hadn't had a Broadway hit since the '60s, although at 62 she'd been active more recently, with revival tours of "Hello, Dolly!" Somewhat less coy than Martin, she took 48 hours to read the script and agreed to appear.

Martin's other condition was script approval by Larry (J.R. Ewing) Hagman, her son and unofficial business manager. Hagman threw a party for the "Legends!" principals and announced that he didn't want his mother to do the play because he wanted to option it as a film vehicle for himself. The reverse psychology worked, Martin said, and she signed a contract. Later, she said with a chuckle, she got the choicest obscenities relocated to the mouth of Channing's character, Sylvia.

The Dallas connection comes via the Houston-based Pace Theatrical Group, which joined the production team of Eggers and a partner, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Pace offered the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, the flagship of its 14-theater chain, as the tryout venue. Originally built for vaudeville in 1921, the Majestic converted to movies in the '40s, declined and was shuttered through the '70s. It was splendidly remodeled and reopened in 1982 with a subscription series of touring shows under the sponsorship of Pace and Dallas' Tom Hughes Foundation.

During the 1984-85 season, two productions -- "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and the female version of "The Odd Couple" -- began their pre-Broadway tours at the Majestic, ushering in a new role for Dallas on the national theater scene. "Odd Couple" producer Emanuel Azenberg said he was delighted with the theater's size -- at 1,500 seats, far more intimate than most regional booking houses and comparable to a Broadway house. The play's seasoned British director, Clifford Williams, gushed, "I had no idea what to expect -- and I was bowled over. It's an enchanting, smashing theater."

"Requiem" producer Zev Bufman saluted Dallas audiences as "sophisticated, but not jaded." Eggers said the excitement that a Broadway tryout can generate in Dallas -- as opposed, say, to a more blase' Boston -- is a tonic for the artists. The "eagerness" extends to the union stagehands, who he said are less likely to work in a costly, by-the-book manner. Still, he disagreed with other producers' estimates that a tryout can cost 20 percent less in Dallas than in better-established tryout cities, and estimated that his $1 million budget for the "Legends!" tour would not be significantly affected by a different tour itinerary.

The producers also like the relaxed atmosphere of a heartland tryout, where a bad review is less likely to race through the New York theater grapevine.

Martin is one of few living stars who played the Majestic in its first incarnation as a playhouse -- she appeared there in 1939 on a promotional tour with showings of her first film, "The Great Victor Herbert." Because she grew up in a town 60 miles to the west, she was asked if she felt gratified to come full circle, back to the home-town crowd.

"Not really," said Martin. "I'd prefer somewhere where they don't know me as well. Like Millsap, Texas. Or Brazil."Herald.