"Cats," one of the few certifiable smash musicals on Broadway, lapped up most of this year's Tony Awards as if they were saucers of cream and not silver statuettes.

Although it had received only lukewarm reviews last September, the British-born musical swept up seven Tonys, including Best Musical of the year. No other show came close to it, but hardly anyone really expected the evening to turn out any other way.

The 37th annual ceremony, which was broadcast live on CBS last night from the Uris Theatre in New York, was as usual a classy celebrity-studded affair. But it was also a classic case of putting a bright coat of paint on a faded mansion. Despite the general boosterism of the evening, attendance on Broadway was down 16.8 percent this year, and of the 49 productions that played between September and May, all but a handful disappeared the very week they opened.

The evening's biggest upset came at the top of the show, when Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy," three interconnected plays examining the life and milieu of a New York drag queen, was named best play. Early betting had favored either Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama " 'night, Mother" or "Plenty," the British import by David Hare. The Tony for "Torch Song" represented the ultimate vindication for the gay-oriented play, which started out off-off-Broadway and almost disappeared before a strong review from The New York Times brought it an audience and an eventual transfer to Broadway.

"Everyone was so scared I'd say something embarrassing," quipped the openly gay Fierstein. He didn't, but nonetheless managed to appear completely flustered. An hour later, he was back on the podium to receive his second Tony for "Torch Song," this time for outstanding actor in a play. He was, if anything, in an even greater dither by then.

An elegant silver-haired Jessica Tandy received a standing ovation from the black-tie audience when she regally mounted the stage to pick up the Tony for outstanding performance by an actress in a play. Although that play, "Foxfire," was tepidly received by the critics, Tandy's luminescence as a flinty mountain woman kept it running most of the season.

Natalia Makarova, clearly recovered from the falling scenery that knocked her out of the cast of "On Your Toes" when it tried out at the Kennedy Center, received the Tony for outstanding performance by an actress in a musical. The competition was not especially stiff, however. In broken English, she thanked her director, co-performers, the late choreographer George Balanchine and "my husband, who didn't help much but wasn't in the way." The line got the biggest laugh of the night.

"My One and Only," a new musical built around some of George and Ira Gershwins' old standards, stood up to "Cats" in three categories: Outstanding performance by an actor in a musical (Tommy Tune); outstanding featured actor in a musical (Charles "Honi" Coles) and outstanding choreography (Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh).

Otherwise, it was an evening for purring.

"Cats" director Trevor Nunn, who last year won a Tony for best direction of a play ("Nicholas Nickleby"), pulled one down this time for outstanding director of a musical. Nunn also was nominated for outstanding director of a play, but lost out to Gene Saks, who staged Neil Simon's autobiographical comedy "Brighton Beach Memoirs." (Simon's work was not in the competition for best play, an omission that prompted its irate producer Emmanuel Azenburg to propose a write-in campaign when the Tony nominations were first revealed last month.)

Valerie Eliot, widow of poet T.S. Eliot, whose lighthearted poems, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," served as the genesis of "Cats," picked up a posthumous Tony for her husband for outstanding book of a musical. Betty Buckley, whose rendition of "Memory" is a second-act highlight of the show, was named outstanding featured actress in a musical. John Napier's fanciful creations for felines of all stripes and shapes got the Tony for outstanding costume design while David Hersey's lighting of the over-sized junk heap in which "Cats" takes place, won outstanding lighting design.

British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who currently has three shows on Broadway (in addition to "Cats": "Evita" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"), received the Tony for outstanding score along with Eliot. "Thank goodness George Gershwin wasn't nominated in this category," Webber quipped brightly. The Gershwin score for "My One and Only" had been ruled ineligible for honors this year, because the individual songs had been culled from old Gershwin shows.

The extraordinary mountain set, built originally for Arena Stage's production of "K2," won designer Ming Cho Lee a Tony for outstanding scenic design, but former Catholic University student Allen Lee Hughes, who lit "K2" both at Arena and on Broadway, was passed over in the lighting category.

Outstanding featured actor in a play went to 21-year-old Matthew Broderick for his performance as a sex-starved teen-ager in "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Visibly nervous, Broderick dedicated his Tony to his father, the late actor James Broderick, who died of cancer on the day his son began rehearsals for the Simon comedy. Judith Ivey won outstanding featured performance by an actress in a play, for her portrayal, much of it in the buff, of a denizen of a British steam bath in the short-lived import, "Steaming.

Besides Makarova's award, the Kennedy Center's "On Your Toes" got best reproduction of a play or musical. For 96-year-old George Abbott, who directed the revival, it was the capstone in a career that has spanned more than 70 years and brought him countless theatrical awards.

The Tony awards, named after Antoinette Perry, are determined by the secret balloting of 668 theater professionals and journalists. A nominating committee selects four candidates for each category at the end of May, the official close of the Broadway season.

Last night's telecast was hosted by Lena Horne, looking svelt, and Richard Burton, looking puffy. Actors wearing costumes from their current Broadway shows presented the awards, which at times made for ludicrous contrasts. Wearing a thick fur-lined parka and gloves, Jay Patterson, one of the mountain climbers in "K2," had a hard time opening his envelope. Diahann Carroll apologized for her serious suit she wears as the psychiatrist in "Agnes of God."

The evening's musical interludes delved deep into the trunk of Gershwin standards, and at the end of the ceremonies the Uris Theatre was officially re-baptized The Gershwin. The tribute was plainly a harking back to days of greater glory on Broadway. Despite the hoopla over the winning shows, the pickings this year were slim, indeed.

Winners of the 1982-83 Tony Awards:

Best play: Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy."

Best musical: "Cats."

Musical book: "Cats."

Original musical score: "Cats."

Actor, play: Harvey Fierstein, "Torch Song Trilogy."

Actress, play: Jessica Tandy, "Foxfire."

Actor, musical: Tommy Tune, "My One and Only."

Actress, musical: Natalia Makarova, "On Your Toes."

Featured actor, play: Matthew Broderick, "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Featured actress, play: Judith Ivey, "Steaming."

Featured actor, musical: Charles "Honi" Coles, "My One and Only."

Featured actress, musical: Betty Buckley, "Cats."

Director, play: Gene Saks, "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Director, musical: Trevor Nunn, "Cats."

Scenic design: Ming Cho Lee, "K2."

Costume design: John Napier, "Cats."

Lighting design: David Hersey, "Cats."

Choreography: Thommie Walsh and Tommy Tune, "My One and Only."

Reproduction of a play or musical: "On Your Toes."