Neil Simon, one of the most successful playwrights in the history of the American theater, won his first Tony award last night when "Biloxi Blues," an autobiographical story set on a military base during World War II, was named best play.

"Big River," a folksy musical with songs by country and western veteran Roger Miller, based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," took an early lead and ended up with seven of the coveted honors, including the prize for best musical.

"I've always dreamed of winning one of these," said Simon, whose lack of Tonys has been compensated for by extraordinary financial success. "I didn't think I'd have to dream through 22 plays. But it was worth the sleep." Then he twirled the revolving inset on the statuette and joked, "I've always wondered if it says 'I love you.' "

Gene Saks won the directing award for "Biloxi Blues," and Barry Miller won the prize for best actor in a featured role for his performance as a young Jewish intellectual in the play. " Producer Manny Azenberg always tells me to lighten up and have fun," said a tortured-looking Miller. "I am."

Simon, 58, came to the theater from an early career as a television writer. Although many of his early plays, like "Barefoot in the Park" (1963), "The Odd Couple" (1965), "Plaza Suite" (1968) and "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1968), have become synonymous with frivolous, superficial stagecraft, in his later work Simon has gone deeper than the funny bone.

Some, such as "Fools" (1981), have not been as successful, either. But in the last two years both "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues" have earned critical praise and sold-out houses. Both draw on his memories of growing up Jewish in New York and follow the same semi-autobiographical central figure. Actor Matthew Broderick has played those parts. With these plays, critics say, Simon has been able to go at least some distance beyond the rapid-fire one-liners that both make and drain his other plays.

"Biloxi Blues" was one of the few Tony-nominated shows this year that was produced specifically for Broadway. Most of the successful New York productions of late have traveled a circuitous route through the provinces, starting with productions in regional theaters, before catching the train for New York. "Big River" began at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, and went from there to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

"Big River" producer Rocco Landesman, noting that the creation of the show began three years ago, said in his acceptance speech, "we never dreamed at the time it could be a big hit on Broadway." He also broke new ground by thanking "the critics . . . God bless you all." Then he added, "go see 'Big River,' you'll love it. You'll thank me."

"Joe Egg," a revival about a couple with a handicapped child, was in close pursuit in the straight play department, winning the awards for best actress in a play for Stockard Channing and best reproduction. It was not competing in the best play category because it is not a new play.

"Big River's" other prizes included best music and lyrics (Miller) and best book, the adaptation of Twain's book by William Hauptman. The show also won for best featured actor in a musical -- which by odds seemed likely since three of the four nominees in that category were "Big River" performers. The one who got it was Ron Richardson, who plays the runaway slave, Jim. He thanked, among others, "my agent, for hanging in there." He also said that the musical brings "a message of hope to future generations." Both Miller and Hauptman thanked Mark Twain in their acceptance speeches.

"I'm glad I won this while I'm still young enough to read it," said Miller, squinting at the inscription on the Tony award, named after Antoinette Perry, an actress and director who died in 1946.

Des McAnuff won best direction of a musical award for "Big River," Richard Riddell won for his lighting design, and Heidi Landesman won for her scenic design. Landesman said she was the first woman to win the scene design award, but said there were a few men who helped her, including her husband the producer.

Leilani Jones, like Richardson a newcomer to the Broadway stage, won the award for best featured actress in a musical for her role as a stripper in "Grind." Jones was nominated in the featured category, although she has a leading role, because nominators did away with the lead actress category due to the scarcity of contenders this season.

"Grind," much awaited as the latest Hal Prince production and the vehicle for Ben Vereen's return to Broadway, won one other prize -- the costume award, to veteran Florence Klotz.

Derek Jacobi, who headed the Royal Shakespeare Company's visit to the United States this season, won the best actor award for his role as the love-struck Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing." "This is the icing on a very rich cake," Jacobi said. "Before I suffer chronic indigestion -- thank you very very much indeed." His costar, Sinead Cusack, lost out to Channing in the best actress category.

Judith Ivey won the award for best featured actress in a play for her role as a sympathetic good-time girl in "Hurlyburly," David Rabe's play about people on the fringes of Hollywood.

There were 16 awards presented this year, down from 19 in previous years because of the elimination of three categories: best actor and actress in a musical and best choreography. The nominating committee of the American Theatre Wing decided that there were too few musicals this year to make the prizes in those categories meaningful.

Only 33 shows opened this season (compared to 50 of two years ago) and none of the musicals was a hit of the size that has come to characterize the title "Broadway musical." The cost of producing them -- up to $4 million, and the resulting $47.50 top ticket price -- have some observers worrying that the big, splashy musical may be on the verge of extinction.

Special Tony awards were given to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, which will be bringing two of its productions to the Kennedy Center this summer, and to the New York State Council of the Arts. The Lawrence Langner Award for lifetime achievement in the theater went to Edwin Lester, founder and for 40 years general director of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company.

Yul Brynner was given an award for his 4,500 performances as the King in "The King and I," a record for the Great White Way. He was presented the award by Mary Martin, who first him when they both appeared in "Lute Song" (1946), and seemed to speak for everyone when he said, "I just want to thank Mary Martin for everything." Then he thanked himself, saying, "And Yul Brynner -- he didn't turn out so bad."

The Tony show, now in its 39th year, was framed this year around a tribute to three composers: Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Songs by the three men were performed by a cast of largely inept television performers and a few veterans like Chita Rivera, Juliet Prowse and Leslie Uggams, who dusted off their sequins to belt out a few old hits. The production numbers served primarily to delay the presentation of awards and remind everyone of the paucity of this season's musicals.

Here is a complete list of the winners.

Best play: "Biloxi Blues."

Best musical: "Big River."

Outstanding book of a musical: William Hauptman, "Big River."

Outstanding original score written for the theater: Roger Miller, "Big River."

Outstanding performance by an actor in a play: Derek Jacobi, "Much Ado About Nothing."

Outstanding performance by an actress in a play: Stockard Channing, "Joe Egg."

Outstanding performance by a featured actor in a musical: Ron Richardson, "Big River."

Outstanding performance by a featured actress in a musical: Leilani Jones, "Grind."

Outstanding direction of a play: Gene Saks, "Biloxi Blues." Outstanding performance by a featured actor in a play: Barry Miller, "Biloxi Blues."

Outstanding performance by a featured actress in a play: Judith Ivey, "Hurlyburly."

Outstanding direction of a musical: Des McAnuff, "Big River."

Outstanding scenic design: Heidi Landesman, "Big River."

Outstanding costume design: Florence Klotz, "Grind."

Outstanding lighting design: Richard Riddell, "Big River."

Outstanding reproduction of a play or musical: "Joe Egg."