The 73rd Annual Tony Awards had flashy dance numbers, powerful vocals, multiple Chers and a whole lot of James Corden. It also featured a history-making win for actress Ali Stroker, who became the first wheelchair user ever to take home a Tony.
The 31-year-old performer was awarded best featured actress in a musical, for her role as Ado Annie in the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!.” During her acceptance speech, Stroker, who has used a wheelchair since age 2 after she was paralyzed from the chest down due to a car crash, championed the importance of representation for people with disabilities.
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” Stroker said. “You are.”
In 2015, Stroker also became the first actress in a wheelchair to perform on a Broadway stage as part of Deaf West Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening.” The revival, which premiered in California before debuting on Broadway, cast deaf actors alongside hearing actors and incorporated American Sign Language translations. “I was with people who really understood what it’s like to want to be a performer—to know you have a talent, but you do it differently,” Stroker reflected in a 2016 interview with Parade’s Jeryl Brunner.
Earlier in the award show, Stroker was front and center during the “Oklahoma!” cast performance, during which she gave a rousing rendition of her character’s featured number, “I Cain’t Say No,” offering a window into director Daniel Fish’s inventive retelling of "Oklahoma!," the musical that first transformed the genre when it debuted on Broadway in 1943.
Fish's production, which nabbed a Tony for best revival of a musical, presents a darker side to one of the most successful musicals in history. Using the story's age-old tale of two cowboys trying to win the hand of the leading lady, the musical examines ideas of gender, sexuality, justice and power. Fish “exposes the darker themes that have always roiled beneath the surface of this bright golden musical,” as Ruthie Fierberg writes for Playbill.
Otherwise, it was “Hadestown” that came out as the biggest winner of the night: The folk-infused, industrialized retelling of Greek mythology took home eight awards, including best new musical. Songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who first created “Hadestown” as a community theater project and folk album more than a decade ago, was honored for her original score. Director Rachel Chavkin—who received a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for her work on “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”—won her first Tony, and used the moment to call for greater diversity onstage and behind the scenes.
“I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” Chavkin said in her acceptance speech. “This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
Two Broadway veterans also won their first Tony Awards after decades in the spotlight. Elaine May, 87, was honored as best leading actress in a play for her role in “The Waverly Gallery.” And 73-year-old André de Shields, who plays god-slash-narrator-figure Hermes in “Hadestown,” was named best featured actor in a musical.
In his speech, the legendary actor doled out some tips for longevity: “Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming,” he advised the audience. “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”