Until some entries joined the field just as it turned down the stretch, the Tony race this season had the flummery of a non-event.

Tony's are to theater what Oscars are to films, Emmys to TV, Grammys to discs: the balted-breath opening of envelopes containing valuations by their peers of Broadway's most respected acheivers. Thanks to the electronic descendent of live theater, tonight the nation will see the televised hoopla on CBS from the stage of New York's Mark Hellinger Theater. Forty of its 1,603 seats must make way for the cameras.

Indifferently greeted in some quarters, the brilliantly provocative "Evita" was an early arrival and as disappointments followed disappointments the Hai Prince production began to seem about the only work worth cheering. Jurors for the Pulitzer, the Critics' Circle and the Outer Critics' Circle were asking one another: "When's the season gonna start?" Then, in the final weeks before nominations closed on May 12, a surge of fine drama and two new musicals CA Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" and "Barnum") improved the entries.

There's always the thread of a theme to the event, sponsored by the League of New York Theaters. This year it's understudies, standbys and replacements. With productions now running for several years, stars no longer fear replacing originals on Broadway -- once a challenge no self-respecting star would consider. Michael York has just taken over for Richard Gere in "Bent." Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn have the Angela Lansbury-Len Cariou roles in "Sweeney Todd." John Cullum is a second replacement for John Wood in "Deathtrap" and Fannie Flagg finally has made it to Broadway as Carlin Glynn's replacement in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Tony Roberts, a real star, and Rhonda Farer, a new one, have the Robert Klein-Luci Arnaz roles in "They're Playing Our Song." Several sets of new principals have followed runners as "A Chorus Line," "Annie" and "Oh, Caluctta!" now into the 11th year.

Besides excerpts from current and past shows, tonight's theater audience will see several special awards presented. Named for the late co-founder of the Theater Guild, the Lawrence Langner Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in the Theater will go to Helen Hayes, who will reach 80 on Oct. 10. She's been achieving for 75 years. Through recommendation of the American Theater Critics Association, a regular Tony will go to the Actors Theater of Louisville. The League also has voted a special Tony for Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera, which has sent several productions to Broadway. Theater '80 awards will go to Hobe Morrison, drama editor of Variety since 1948, and to Richard Fitzgerald of Sound Associates. Alas, not all these will be on the air, which does dull some of their shine.

But the real news of the evening will be in the major writing, acting, directing and design awards. This year 12 preliminary judges voted for four choices in each category at separate hours in isolated rooms under the direction of an accounting firm. The judges -- critics, editors and academics -- had a rough scramble keeping up with 10 openings the final 10 nights of eligibility. These nominations were then passed on to 567 voting members of the various professions and crafts.

Likeliest "best play" is Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," which already has won the Pulitzer and New York Drama Critics' Circle awards. Second in a series of four projected plays about Indiana family life, this two character work stars Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins. Martin Sherman's "Bent," Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" and Samm-Art Williams' "Home" are the other "best play" nominations.

Because he has created an impressive volume of plays -- from "Hot-1 Baltimore" to "The Fifth of July" -- and because more often than not winning two of the three major awards means copping the third, Wilson is the likely winner. An equally gifted newcomer, Williams has written in "Home" a beautiful black play. While it has scores of characters, only three splendid players form the company. Created for Off-Broadway's Negro Ensemble Company, this moved uptown just in time to make the top foursome.

With straight plays having increasingly tough economic sledding, musicals are supposed to be Broadway's chief glory. Only "Sugar Babies," following "Evita," relieved the musical doldrums until the late arrival of two other nominees.

The first was Tony-award-ceremony producer Alexander Cohen's own production of a London award winner, "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine." Those who saw this trying out in Baltimore must be astounded it's in the running, but never discount Cohen. Baltimore's Mechanic stage was thrice too large for Tony Walton's witty sets and this mini-musical's company of eight. Now the sets fill the stage of 45th Street's Golden and ace tunesmith Jerry Herman came to Cohen's aid with three new zip-zap numbers for the start of the little show. If "A Night in the Ukraine" is a pretty sorry wheeze, "A Day in Hollywood" is cleverly staged by Tommy Tune, a nominee in his directorial capacity.

Even better is "Barnum," one of the best musicals in too many years, which arrived just in time for the nominations. Jim Dale's rare performance in this is very likely to crush Mickey Rooney's hopes for his star performance in "Sugar Babies." That's a sentimental irony for, along with the DeMarco Sisters, Mickey was an entertainer at that first Tony ceremony in 1947.

"Evita's" 11 nominations should carry this disc-turned-show to the top of the musical heap. Title player Patti LuPone is a likely "best musical actress" winner in a field which further includes Ann Miller of "Sugar Babies," Sandy Duncan of "Peter Pan" and Christine Andreas of "Oklahoma!"

Not so long ago actresses were complaining there were no dramatic roles for them. This year, because there have been so many, the best female performances are out of the running. They are the four stars of "Morning's at 7": Elizabeth Wilson, Teresa Wright, Nancy Marchand and Maureen O'Sullivan. Not one is on the final list of four nominees; Blythe Danner for Harold Pinter's "Betrayal"; Maggie Smith for Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day"; Phyllis Frelich for "Children of a Lesser God" and Anne Twomey for Tom Toper's "Nuts."

I flaw the choices because both Frelich and Twomey are being acclaimed bests on the basis of their first Broadway roles, the first in the language of signs, the second for the role -- not necessarily for the performance. Much as she helped "Night and Day," Smith was more her clever own persons. And since Danner, Caroline Lagerfelt has shown that Pinter wrote an especially rich part. Omitting the four sisters of "Morning's at 7" is a serious weakness in the nominating scheme.

"Morning's at 7," Paul Osborn's drama about four mid-America sisters, was admired in its 1939 premiere, but it failed to find a public. Revived Off-Broadway in '55, it then managed 125 performances. Now it's brought a smash hit to New York's oldest working playhouse, the Lyceum. Evidently sensibilities have improved with time, but it's ironic that Osborn has had to live 79 years to see his 41-year-old drama recognized.

Credit for this likely will be given in the "Reproduction" category, as well as for Vivian Matalon's direction and the featured performances of Lois de Banzie and David Rounds. De Banzie's competitors for featured performance are Pamela Burrell for "Strider," Maureen Anderton for "the Lady from Dubuque" and Dinah Manoff for "I Ought to be in Pictures." Rounds is one of five featured male performers nominated. While there were only four slots, the nominators had evened up votes for David Dukes of "Bent," George Hearn for "Watch on the Rhine," Earle Hyman for "the Lady from Dubuque" and Joseph Maher for "Night and Day."

The closest category of all is for "outstanding actor." For bravura versatility, Gerald Hiken in "Strider" can't be topped. For consistent interest in mixing speech and language of sign, John Rubinstein in "Children of a Lesser God" is masterful. Charles Brown's black who finally goes "Home" is a marvelous blending of humor, fantasy and emotion. Though Judd Hirsch plays a long ago St. Louis gent in contemporary New York style, his "Talley's Folly" character appears to be the favorite.