In late 2015 Ali Stroker became the first Broadway actor to play a wheelchair user who actually uses a chair in real life. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball when he signed with the old Brooklyn Dodgers. After that historic season, baseball began integrating. Will Stroker’s breakthrough in the musical, Spring Awakening, do for wheelchair users in show business what Robinson did for African-Americans in baseball?
“I hope so,” she says. “I hope people with disabilities get opportunities on stage, on film and on screens. I hope that this is the beginning. We’re still putting nondisabled actors in wheelchairs, and we’re still having them play blind or play deaf characters,” she adds. “It’s a shame because when you live with a disability, you have all this information and this experience that will only heighten and make the role more authentic.”
By that standard, Spring Awakening could not have been more authentic. In addition to Stroker’s disability, about half the rest of the cast in the Deaf West Theater production was non-hearing. Stroker had to learn American Sign Language for her role. When she sang, she also signed the lyrics with her hands. Try doing that in a manual wheelchair. “Signing and singing is one of the hardest things in the world,” she says. “But it’s so expressive and so theatrical.”
No one should confuse Spring Awakening with happy musicals like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. This one is about teenagers figuring out their sexuality and boundaries. It is raw and dark. If it were a movie, they would give it an R, or maybe even an X rating.
Thanks to the ADA, Broadway’s theaters now all have spaces for wheelchair-using customers and their companions. Backstage it’s a different story. None are wheelchair friendly. Before Spring Awakening opened at the Brooks Atkinson, its producers added a stage door ramp and an accessible dressing room for Stroker. She didn’t have to ask. They just did it. Those improvements remain in the theater. “It’s exciting to think,” she says, “that now there is an accessible dressing room backstage on Broadway.”
Her role wasn’t written for a wheelchair-using actor. In fact, her understudy was a walkie. Stroker didn’t want her to fake using a chair. “I don’t think she could have learned to do what I did with speed and precision,” she says.
There is nothing unplanned in a Broadway musical. The director and choreographer got this one running like a Swiss watch, a Swiss watch on steroids. They had the 28-year-old Stroker starting, stopping, turning, singing and signing. “The whole show was like a machine,” she recalls. “All the pieces had to work together.” She fit in so seamlessly that The New York Times reviewer almost overlooked her. “Incidentally,” he wrote, “the cast also includes an actor in a wheelchair — a detail I so easily assimilated that I almost forgot to mention it.”
Only a very athletic para could have handled the part the way Stroker, a C7-T2 incomplete, did. To stop her from rolling off of the stage as she raced around, they put a little lip across its front. The floor of the stage in the 1926 theater had its own problems. “It’s warped wood, which created little hills,” Stroker says. “I could feel them as I rolled over them. It was really funny when I realized that when I stopped to sign something, I was rolling away.”
Performing in a Broadway show can be a grind. The curtain goes up six nights a week, plus matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “It is exhausting,” admits Stroker, “and definitely intense, but I found that if I got plenty of sleep, I can do anything. Sleep for me is the key. I made it a priority.”
Finding Her Passion
She began using a chair after being injured in an automobile accident. She was just 2 years old. “A life-altering experience when you’re young doesn’t feel life-altering,” she points out. She grew up with an older brother and a younger sister in Ridgewood, N.J., a pleasant New York City suburb. Her father is a teacher and coach there. He told her every day that she was a superstar. He encouraged her to compete. “I used to wheelchair race as a kid,” she recalls, “and I have this national record for my age, my injury, and a specific race. Yeah, I did really well. My dad always reminds me about it. It was fun, but I wasn’t motivated or driven to win.”
She was just 7 when she found her true calling, playing the title role in a backyard production of the musical, Annie. “We sang along with the tape, and we painted the sheet that was the backdrop,” she recalls. “It was really cute. It made me feel alive. That’s when I got the acting bug. After that summer my life opened up. I looked for opportunities to perform. I just wanted to be on the stage, to tell stories and play characters.” She started dreaming of being on Broadway.
Next she was Dorothy in a grade school production of The Wiz. Its musical director, Susan McBrayer, and her assistant, Catherine McCourt, still talk about Stroker’s audition: “She sang ‘Over the Rainbow,’” remembers McBrayer. “She was this tiny fourth grader with perfect pitch, rhythm and feeling. Our jaws dropped. I’m a voice teacher. I thought, ‘how does she do this?’ We looked at each other. Oh my God — she’s incredible. No way you can’t cast that child — she’s so gifted!” McBrayer started working with her. “I couldn’t let go of her! Such drive in her!”
That show changed the way people in her hometown viewed Stroker. “I was suddenly seen in this other light,” she says — “like, ‘Oh, she’s a talented little girl.’ It wasn’t just about, ‘Oh, this is a little girl who’s gone through a trauma. For me it was like, I’ve found my purpose! I have something to live for and something I love and am so passionate about and that makes me so happy.”
She wasn’t just talented. She was also popular enough to be elected class president in her senior year of high school. In the school’s production of Les Miserables she starred as Cosette, and then as Maria, the Puerto Rican heroine of West Side Story. “I know,” she laughs, “a blond, blue-eyed Maria.”
She went to college at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, becoming its first wheelchair-using student. “Everyone was a little nervous at first about how I was going to do the dance program. I became really good at translating movement for myself,” she says. “I learned that I had to be my own advocate, and that I had to really get good at having conversations with people that would ease their nerves about what would happen.” She played Berthe in the school’s production of Pippin and the grandmother in Into the Woods. Both shows are musicals. By graduation everybody knew her. She was a Tisch spokesperson and shared a dais with Hillary Clinton.
After graduation, her career stalled before it began. “I remember it being very hard when I graduated from college, not even getting very many auditions,” she recalls. “I was like, gosh, they won’t even see me? They won’t even let me in the room!”
But she landed the part of Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a highly regarded regional theater in New Jersey. Like all her earlier musical roles, it wasn’t written for an actor with a disability.
The show was directed by Marc Bruni. He had known Stroker since she was 13 and took classes at the Paper Mill’s Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory. Patrick Parker, its associate artistic director, was one of her teachers and mentors. “She’s totally fearless,” he says. “She doesn’t see herself as someone with a disability. She happens to be someone who can sing and dance who is in a wheelchair.”
She broke into television on the reality series, The Glee Project. It was a talent contest. The winner got a part on Glee. Ali ended up in second place. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, said that it was “impossible to root against her.” She later did appear in the series, playing the mean-girl love interest of Artie Abrams, a wheelchair-using character who was played by nondisabled actor Kevin McHale.
Once you have been on television, fans aren’t inhibited about approaching you. Stroker recalls one who suddenly realized that she actually needs to use a wheelchair to get around. “Wait, that’s permanent?” he asked, shocked. Or others who told her, “You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair” or “You’re the hottest girl I’ve ever seen in a wheelchair.”
“If somebody thinks I’m too pretty to be in a wheelchair, well, maybe that changes their mind about what is possible,” she says. “There’s no reason why somebody can’t be beautiful and in a wheelchair, and why wheelchairs can’t be beautiful and cool! I don’t have to walk. I get to roll around. That’s cool! That’s different. Why not?”
At her first Spring Awakening audition, they just asked her to sing. They called her back again to see if she could dance. “I just went in and adapted it the way that I do,” she says. “I’ve gotten good at translating movement that somebody who’s standing does — to someone who’s sitting. When I’m in a dance call I usually do my own thing, and then if there’s a moment, I’ll say to the choreographer, ‘If you have any ideas, please let me know, but I’m going to translate it the way I do,’ and I actually enjoy that more because I understand my vocabulary better than somebody who’s not in a chair, because this is how I roll — literally.”
She wowed them. “Ali dove into the audition with such rigor,” recalls director Michael Arden. He had seen her work on TV and at the Paper Mill Playhouse. “I remember one moment when everyone had to jump up in the air, and Ali popped a wheelie. I was just so moved by her fearlessness. It was a natural choice for her to be in this show. I can’t imagine it without her.”
She has also earned respect and standing ovations from her fellow actors. “She is so delicious,” says Camryn Manheim, one of the show’s stars. “She picks up chairs and brings them off stage. When I saw that, I was like, ‘You’re my hero.’ It is incredibly inspiring.”
When she has the time, Stroker is a teaching artist with Arts InsideOut. She has traveled to South Africa for them twice, working with children and mothers affected by HIV/AIDS. That’s where she learned that she had achieved her childhood ambition: Spring Awakening was Broadway bound! “I saw the email and my jaw dropped, and my whole body went hot, and then I didn’t say anything. When we broke from the class, I went and found my friend, and we hugged and cried, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be on Broadway!’ It was so cool.”
McBrayer, who was Stroker’s voice coach in New Jersey, remembers that her daughter, Amy, told her the news. “She called me screaming, ‘Ali’s going to Broadway! Ali’s going to Broadway!’”
Spring Awakening closed in January after 859 performances. Stroker isn’t sure what she’ll do next. “I do miss performing every single night, and the people I got to meet and the people I got to perform with,” she says. “They’ll forever be like family to me because of what we have done together.”