In years past, the producers of the Tony Awards telecast have played it straight.

This year they'll play it smart, too.

Traditionally, the Tony Awards telecast has been a critical success -- the Tonys have been an Emmy winner. But when it's come to ratings, well, if the show were a play, its Nielsens might close it after the first night.

The curtain goes up on "The 41st Annual Tony Awards" program honoring the year's best stage performances and productions tonight at 9 on CBS, with a cast headed by host Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury, who has long since made a major mark on the stage -- she has four Tonys on her shelf -- is the Sunday night ratings queen in her series "Murder, She Wrote." She is a certified star of stage and screen (large and small) with the Tonys (for her roles in "Mame," "Dear World," "Gypsy," and "Sweeney Todd") and three Oscar and three Emmy nominations. Hosting the Tonys is almost like visiting the folks back home.

"The theater is definitely home base for me," she said, pausing during a combined theater-hopping binge, Tony-host cram course in New York. "I began on stage, even though I went into movies. I went back to the stage for 15 years" after getting established on film.

"The only regret I have about the television series is that it keeps me in Los Angeles nine months of the year. I miss coming back east to New York and visiting Washington, {having to pass up} the White House invitations and the 'Kennedy Center Honors.' "

Coming back east to New York isn't what it used to be. While a number of smash hits have theaters bulging these days, the business trend on Broadway is getting poor reviews. "Unfortunately, Broadway has priced itself out of the market," said Lansbury. "We've all totaled it up -- the price of tickets, transportation, and dinner. It shouldn't be an elitist institution, it should be open to everyone, but it isn't.

But Lansbury also sees the vigor of regional theaters and those in major cities outside New York. "I remember when 'Sweeney Todd' opened in Boston," she recalled. "It was an event. It was cold and crowds of people came trailing along the street like they were on their way to a football game."

The Tonys come trailing to television this year under the stewardship of a different production company, with Don Mischer as executive producer and David Goldberg producing. Walter Miller will direct.

They are at once aware of the room for ratings improvement, but are trying to keep that secondary to putting on a show that is esthetically pleasing.

"All shows of this type have suffered" in ratings in recent seasons, said Mischer. He pointed with unassuming pride to at least one exception: His "Motown 25" presentation four seasons back pulled a whopping 44 share of the audience. But the recent televised reopening of Carnegie Hall -- which his company produced -- barely broke double figures in the audience-share column, trailing a Diana Ross special.

But the show he's concerned with this week is the Tony Awards. While acknowledging the recent ratings slide for shows of this type, Mischer, who produces the "Kennedy Center Honors," vowed not to let the quest for Nielsen numbers govern his handling of the show.

"Our approach is not to get high ratings, although we've booked big stars," said Mischer. Among those scheduled to appear are Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Helen Hayes, James Earl Jones, John Lithgow and Swoozie Kurtz. "Our first goal is to be theatrical, to do a show that does justice to the theater. A show that has credibility to both the theater and to television."

Who better to signal the keeping of the faith to theater -- and television -- than Angela Lansbury?

"After she'd completed a season of 'Murder, She Wrote,' working six or seven days a week and appearing in practically every scene, she was anxious for a vacation," said Mischer. "But when we broached the idea of her hosting the show, her eyes lit up. And compared to what she could be doing during the hiatus, she's getting no money."

The Tonys will follow an episode of "Murder, She Wrote," offering Lansbury fans a very full evening.

The ceremonies, telecast live from the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York, will include a salute to the late Robert Preston, with three of his leading ladies, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters and Mary Martin, taking part. Jackie Mason will receive a special Tony, and there will be the customary excerpts from the nominated musicals. In a departure from past shows, there will also be segments from the nominated dramas. And the show will have a more theatrical look, with the stage, even when bare, designed to look more like a theater than a television studio.

At the center of it all will be Lansbury, holding, the producers hope, the audience her own 8 p.m. series should deliver to the 9 p.m. time slot. Come fall, the "Murder" time period itself will be challenged when NBC moves "Family Ties" to Sunday at 8.

"To be quite honest," said Lansbury, "I think the audiences for the two shows are separate groups -- but not that 'Murder, She Wrote' belongs strictly to the older group." She recalled with delight stepping on the street with her husband and being recognized by a school bus loaded with 9- and 10-year-olds. "They nearly fell out of the windows, yelling 'Jessica! We love you!'"

Both shows, she feels, cut across younger and older age groups and suggested the audiences are divided more along the lines of those who watch mysteries and those who like family shows. "People who watch 'Family Ties' will watch 'Family Ties,'" she said. "People who watch us will watch us." Tortured souls who watch both, she said, will find salvation in the VCR.

However the battle shapes up, it probably won't last more than two seasons. Lansbury will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract this fall and, considering her years and the hectic pace of television, an extension is a forbidding prospect. "It's easier to think of it in longer terms when you're away from it," she said. "But when you're involved, shooting 14 hours a day, five or six days a week, you think, Must I continue at this kind of concentrated work? I think I'm the only woman in television with a schedule like mine. And I don't have a sidekick to share the load."