Known affectionately as “the Oklahoma! that f—s,” this Rodgers and Hammerstein revival broke away from its roots, with its in-the-round presentation and potent carnal energy.

But the biggest moment for director Daniel Fish’s production didn’t happen during a performance – it was at the Tony Awards, when actress Ali Stroker, 32, became the first wheelchair user to win a Tony, taking home gold for her joyously lusty Ado Annie. A stunned Stroker took to the stage and proclaimed, “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. You are.”

Ali Stroker
Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty

When Stroker signed on to Oklahoma!, initially for its Off-Broadway run at St. Ann’s Warehouse, she never expected this outcome. “I could have never predicted any of that,” she tells EW. “It’s so different than anything I’ve ever done. It’s a very different theater experience, and I never imagined it would go to Broadway, let alone being nominated for a Tony.”

While a Tony wasn’t in her sights at the time, Stroker did have specific goals in mind when she took the role. Namely, to ground what she had come to see as a role based in broad stereotypes in something more real and less-judgmental. Ado Annie is, after all, the promiscuous farmer’s daughter so enamored of men she just cain’t say no. But in Stroker’s hands, she’s a woman fully aware of the power of her sexuality – and willing to use it to gain power and love in a world where women are afforded little of either.

“I had seen it done so many times, and it felt like a caricature,” she explains. “She didn’t seem very smart or real. One of my goals was to make her feel very real. She really loves everybody on stage. She really cares about everybody. All of her curiosity and excitement and her thirst for life comes from this source of love that she receives all the time.”

A large part of this revival’s appeal lies in that sense of making things real – its stripped-down orchestrations, onstage band, and frequently bright house lights placing the audience into the heart of the action. Ado Annie’s not the only well-trod musical theatre character granted new life. Stroker agrees it’s this gritty edge that has propelled Oklahoma! to Broadway and Tony success.

“It is a portrait of America, and we have brought out some of the darker parts of that story,” she reflects. “Our society is wanting to look those things in the eye because we are in a place in the world where things are being revealed. We’re realizing looking at the uncomfortable things are going to be the things that allow us to grow and progress.”

She’s weeks away from the show closing on Jan. 19 and after that, her plans are to do a February concert at Lincoln Center and take a break. Six months after her win, Stroker has had more chance to soak-in the resonance of her own moment of progress. The actual moment was a blur. “When I heard my name, I didn’t really have anything in my mind other than ‘Oh my god, this is it. I just won.’”

Though, she says the message in her speech was something she’d given some thought to before, and she wouldn’t alter it much now in addressing the same community. “I would say your dreams can come true,” she adds. “It’s going to take so much hard work and so much dedication. It’s going to be really, really hard and there are going to be times when you feel you can’t do it. But if you know what’s important to you, and you know what you want to achieve in your heart, then you will find a way.”

Ali Stroker
Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

In the months since, she’s heard from many fans who count her triumph as one for their community, including Gregg Vigil, a founding member of the Colorado theater company Phamaly, formed entirely of performers with disabilities.

“He told me watching me win was one of the highlights of his life,” she marvels. “What’s so important and what creates progress is when we see it actually happen…We can talk about how we want to make change and how we want progress, but you only really believe it when it happens.”

We cain’t say no to that.

For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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