The Broadway theater may not be in the best of health, but it looked in fine fettle last night during the 41st presentation of the annual Tony Awards as "Les Mise'rables," the epic British musical, and "Fences," a fierce drama about black American life in the 1950s, swept their way to triumph.

"Les Mise'rables" won eight Tonys, including the all-important Best Musical, and held its nearest musical competitor, the vintage British musical "Me and My Girl," to three.

August Wilson's "Fences" was the other big winner of the evening, with four Tonys to its credit. Already the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, it was named best play, and its star, James Earl Jones, was cited for giving the best performance by a leading actor in a play.

In what amounted to an upset, Robert Lindsay, the ingratiating Cockney upstart in "Me and My Girl," beat out Colm Wilkinson, the star of "Les Mise'rables," for the award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical. Lindsay's costar, Maryann Plunkett, took the Tony for best performance by a leading actress in a musical. The show picked up its third Tony for Gillian Gregory's choreography.

Otherwise, it was "Les Mise'rables" all the way -- good news for the Kennedy Center, where the musical tried out last winter. As one of the coproducers of the show, the center receives a small percentage of the profits, but a small percentage, in this instance, is apt to amount to a great deal.

"Starlight Express" made a weak showing, picking up only the Tony for best costume design. "Rags," a four-performance flop and the one American entry in the musical competition, was predictably left out in the cold.

Only 10 minutes into the program, it was clear that the tide was going to run in favor of "Les Mise'rables," or "Les Mis," as it is affectionately called. Michael Maguire, who leads the poor and wretched people of Paris in rebellion in the sweeping adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, was cited as best featured actor in a musical. Shortly after, British-born Frances Ruffelle, as the doomed Eponine, was named best featured actress.

By the time directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn were announced as best directors of a musical, it was all but certain that "Les Mis" was going all the way.

It did -- also snagging the Tonys for best book, best score, best lighting and best scenic design. In the course of the evening's acceptance speeches, which are normally profuse and fairly all-embracing, even Victor Hugo's mother managed to rate a thank-you for giving birth to such a genius.

"Fences" gave the home team something to cheer about, although it was forged in the regional theater and couldn't exactly be called Broadway's own. Still, it was a popular choice, as was Jones, whose gargantuan performance had Tony Award written all over it from the start. Jones drew an appreciative laugh when he thanked, among others, his young son for "accepting the fact that Father goes to the theater to work."

Lloyd Richards, who staged "Fences," netted the Tony for best direction of a play, and Mary Alice, who plays Jones' long-suffering wife, a backbone of steel, was cited as best featured actress in a play. For one of the play's producers, a visibly pregnant Carole Shorenstein Hayes, the excitement was nearly too much. "I think I'm going to give birth right now," she said.

Also widely anticipated was the Tony for best performance by a leading actress in a play. It went to Linda Lavin, who portrays the gallant but stern mother in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." "I'm so glad you like my work," gushed an elated Lavin, saying she had "thought of nothing else for the last 30 days" and consequently had been fluffing lines and missing entrances nightly.

Veteran actor John Randolph brought a second Tony -- for best performance by a featured actor in a play -- to "Broadway Bound," the concluding installment in Simon's autobiographical trilogy that began with "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and continued with "Biloxi Blues." If Simon himself was edged out in the Best Play category, he at least had the consolation of knowing that "Biloxi Blues" had won the honor several seasons ago.

British designer John Napier won twice -- the first time for best costume design for "Starlight Express," in which the cast members appear as locomotives and train cars. Moments later, he was called back to the stage to receive the Tony for best scenic design for "Les Mise'rables." "Which one is this?" he asked, examining the statuette. Then in a slightly sour tone, he added, "One is not supposed to say things like this. It seems a little peculiar to me that 'Starlight' wasn't nominated {for scenic design}."

Not coincidentally, Napier was also the scenic designer for that superspectacular, which turns the theater into a gigantic roller rink. The omission was regrettable, as a filmed clip from the show illustrated. But Napier's ungracious remarks did little to repair the oversight and provoked a chill in the audience.

Named best revival of a play or musical was Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," which had a successful engagement at Ford's Theatre but fared poorly on Broadway and closed for lack of business.

Stand-up comic Jackie Mason was awarded a special Tony -- a particularly happy vindication for a man who was once tossed off television by Ed Sullivan for making what was widely interpreted at the time as an obscene gesture on the air. "I'm really in a state of shock here," said Mason, whose one-man show, "The World According to Me," has proved to be a surprise hit of the season. "I don't know who to thank. Nobody believed in this whole show."

Comparing himself -- a rabbi turned comic -- to President Reagan -- an actor turned politician, Mason quipped, "it proves that if you don't know what you're doing, you can become the biggest man in your field."

Actor Robert Preston, who died earlier this year, was accorded a posthumous tribute, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe received a Tony for special excellence by a regional theater.

Although the Tony Awards traditionally put the best face possible on the commercial theater, there was statistical evidence to suggest that matters did improve marginally on Broadway this season. The number of productions, 40, was up from last season's 33. Reversing a five-year slide, attendance also jumped this by 440,000 to 6,968,277 -- although that was still a long shot from the 1980-81 season, which registered 10,822,324 paying customers.

Box office revenues for the 1986-87 season ($207,239,749) were also up from the preceding season ($190,619,862). The spurt in income and attendence is largely traceable to the blockbuster status of "Les Mise'rables," "Me and My Girl" and "Starlight Express," plus the long-running "Cats," which continues to play to capacity houses. Not only do those four shows collectively gross approximately $2 million a week, but they focus popular attention on a revitalized Broadway and generate spill-over audiences that benefit less popular shows.

At the same time Broadway fortunes were looking up, the road was declining. Grosses for touring Broadway shows fell off to $224,287,315 from last season's $235,616,902. Much of that income came from multiple companies of "Cats," one of which returns to the National Theatre in Washington on July 8.

Home viewers, however, could only conclude from the lineup of star presenters and the generally classy tone of the CBS telecast that Broadway has nothing to apologize for these days. Besides rousing scenes from the four nominated musicals, the program found space for brief excerpts from the four nominated plays, thereby suggesting that the Great White Way is not entirely dead as a home for serious play writing.

And when host Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur teamed up for a reprise of "Bosom Buddies" from "Mame," it did, indeed, seem there was life in the old street yet.

Winners of the 41st annual Tony Awards:

Best direction of a play: Lloyd Richards for "Fences."

Best direction of a musical: Trevor Nunn and John Caird for "Les Mise'rables."

Best performance by a featured actress in a musical: Frances Ruffelle in "Les Mise'rables."

Best performance by a featured actor in a musical: Michael Maguire in "Les Mise'rables."

Best scenic design: John Napier for "Les Mise'rables."

Best costume design: John Napier for "Starlight Express."

Best lighting design: David Hersey for "Les Mise'rables."

Best choreography: Gillian Gregory for "Me and My Girl."

Special Tony Awards: Producer-director George Abbott, who is 100 years old; comic Jackie Mason, currently on Broadway in a one-man show; and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, cited for outstanding regional theater.

Best revival of a play or musical: "All My Sons."

Best performance by a featured actress in a play: Mary Alice in "Fences."

Best performance by a featured actor in a play: John Randolph in "Broadway Bound."

Best performance by a leading actor in a play: James Earl Jones in "Fences."

Best performance by a leading actress in a play: Linda Lavin in "Broadway Bound."

Best original score written for the theater: "Les Mise'rables."

Best book of a musical: "Les Mise'rables."

Best performance by a leading actress in a musical: Maryann Plunkett in "Me and My Girl."

Best performance by a leading actor in a musical: Robert Lindsay in "Me and My Girl."

Best book of a musical: "Les Mise'rables."

Best play: "Fences."

Best musical: "Les Mise'rables."