The Tony Awards made history tonight with two winners breaking barriers: Jessica Paz, the first woman to win for Best Sound Design of a Musical for her work with Hadestown, and actress Ali Stroker as the first actress who uses a wheelchair to win for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.
Paz took home the award with co-sound designer Nevin Steinberg. Paz is the first woman to ever be nominated, let alone win. A lover of music yet not herself a talented musician, Paz found her calling with sound design. “It was a way for me to connect with music without being a musician,” she explained after her win. “I hope that it inspires any young woman who finds this field interesting to pursue it. There is success here.”
Stroker’s turn as Ado Annie in the revival iconic musical Oklahoma! marked the first person who uses a wheelchair to be nominated for a Tony Award, regardless of nomination category. Stroker spoke about the importance of making theaters more accessible; while most theaters are equipped with ramps for patrons, the backstage areas are frequently not as updated due to the lack of cast and crew who use them. “I was looking to see who is there or who was working or had made it who had disabilities or were in a wheelchair, and there was nobody,” Stroker said, citing her own lack of a role model while an aspiring actress. “It makes me feel amazing to be that for them because I did not have that as an 11 year old girl pursuing this dream.”
Stroker discussed collaborating with choreographers and directors for stage blocking, especially during romantic scenes in the plot. Since most choreographers and directors have not worked with someone in a wheelchair, Stroker explained, it’s always a learning process of feeling comfortable while still maintaining the essence of the written scene.
Stroker thanked her parents for encouraging her throughout her career, as well as her partner, David. “He has stuck by me for so many years and has believed in me,” Stroker said. “He reminds me every day to let my light shine.”
Oklahoma! producer Eva Price passionately explained the importance of Stroker’s win tonight. “It was incredible to see Ali [Stroker] win an award,” Price said. “She has taught me so much about disability and accessibility and progression…and I think she is doing that for all of Broadway.”