“Spring Awakening” actress Ali Stroker outside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Actress Ali Stroker has rolled into Broadway history.
Paralyzed from the chest down due to a car crash when she was 2, the 28-year-old featured player in “Spring Awakening” is the first actor who uses a wheelchair to make it to the Great White Way.
Ever. Which is astonishing since Broadway shows reach back to the 1800s.
“To the best of our knowledge, there’s been no one before her,” says Howard Sherman, interim director for Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for stage, TV and film.
An Actors’ Equity Association spokeswoman concurs.
Perhaps an actor in a wheelchair appeared centuries ago without the disability being noted, but what’s absolutely certain, says Sherman, is that this milestone is way past due.
“There’s no question that it’s time,” he says, adding that “20% of Americans have disabilities. But on stage and on film and TV, they are largely unseen.”
Stroker, who grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., echoes the sentiment. “Broadway theaters by law have to be accessible for audience members with disabilities,” she says. “It should be the same for someone in the show.”
Deaf West Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” made sure it is. Producers brought Stroker’s ground-floor dressing room up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Ali Stroker, in a wheelchair antiqued for the show, and the cast of Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening.”
But that means more than just putting handrails in Stroker’s bathroom, which has been enlarged to accommodate her “everyday” wheelchair. The special chair she uses on stage has been antiqued to go with the period setting of the show drawn from Frank Wedekind’s 1890 drama. There’s also an entrance with a ramp she can use, but she often uses the stage door like her fellow actors.
In this revival done earlier this year in California, non-hearing actors (like Marlee Matlin) and hearing ones (like Camryn Manheim) perform this 2007 Best Musical Tony winner simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s beautiful and angsty coming-of-age musical includes such songs as “The Bitch of Living,” “Left Behind” and “Totally F—ed.”
Not that Stroker thinks such titles apply to her personally.
“A life-altering experience when you’re young doesn’t feel life-altering,” she says, adding that being in a wheelchair “has allowed me to always think creatively.” That can-do outlook has served her well throughout her career, including nabbing this ensemble part for her Broadway debut.
Her attitude has been honed since her first performance 21 years ago in the title role in a backyard production of “Annie.”
“After that summer my life opened up,” she says. “I looked for opportunities to perform.”
She found them. High school roles like Cosette in “Les Miserables” and Maria in “West Side Story” followed. “I know, a blond, blue-eyed Maria,” she laughs.
At New York University she played the grandmother in “Pippin.” Since graduating, she’s been in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey as well as “The Glee Project” and “Glee,” where she played a mean-girl love interest for wheelchair-using series regular Artie.
“Spring Awakening” director Michael Arden had seen Ali Stroker in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
For “Spring Awakening,” Stroker learned ASL. “Signing and singing is one of the hardest things in the world,” she says. “But it’s so expressive and so theatrical.”
One night, when she was out with castmates at a noisy bar, she signed “eat” — all five fingers pressed together and moved towards the mouth as if stuffing food — to a waitress who couldn’t hear her. The cast has become an especially tightknit family.
“I can’t imagine the show without Ali,” says “Spring Awakening” director Michael Arden, who’d seen her work on TV and in “Spelling Bee.”
“Ali dove into the audition with such rigor,” adds Arden, mentioning that she asked for no alterations because of her chair when it came to “Spring Awakening” choreography. “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.”
She’s earned respect and standing ovations from fellow actors.
“She is so delicious,” says Manheim. “She [moves] furniture. She picks up chairs and brings them off stage. When I saw that, I was like, ‘You’re my hero.’ It is incredibly inspiring.”
In a bit of good timing, the Casting Society of America and the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts are holding a closed town-hall meeting on Monday with actors with disabilities to discuss this hot-button topic.
“It’s a first step for open dialogue,” says Sherman, adding that Stroker won’t be able to attend for the best possible reason: she’ll be on stage.