With a big voice and even bigger personality, Ali Stroker was a natural contestant for season two of The Glee Project, a reality TV competition in which the grand prize is a recurring role on the hit FOX series about a high school show choir. She came in second, but ended up on the show anyway. As Ali explains it, it was all about her sex appeal: She plays "Betty," the sexy mean girl who falls for wheelchair-bound Artie.
Riding off her Glee success, Stroker will appear on the stage of 54 Below for the fourth annual Born for Broadway gala on Monday, September 30. Born for Broadway is an organization that raises funds and awareness for paralysis-related organizations. Other performers set to appear include Tony nominees Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), Karen Akers (Nine), and John Tartaglia (Avenue Q).
TheaterMania spoke to Stroker about the event, her inspiring life story, and of course her time on Glee:
How did you get involved with Born for Broadway?
I'm involved with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. They're one of the beneficiaries of Born for Broadway. They reached out to me about five years ago and asked if I would perform with them. I was just thrilled. I was so happy to be doing something I love while helping people with paralysis, which directly affects me.
What is your own history with paralysis?
I was hurt in a car accident when I was two years old. I have a spinal-cord injury that has left me paralyzed from the chest down. I was in physical therapy for years. Spinal-cord injuries are life-changing. You have a choice to make it something positive or feel like a victim. I have been so lucky to be surrounded by people who have really encouraged me to make this something wonderful. It has been. So many opportunities have come from my paralysis. Some might call it a limitation, but it's been the opposite for me. Paralysis is not just a physical change, but a huge emotional journey. For the past twenty-four years of me being paralyzed, I have come in contact with the most supportive and incredible people who have believed that there was a way to help me make my dreams come true, even if I was in a chair.
And that dream was to be a performer. When did you know you wanted to do that?
I knew when I was seven years old. I was in a backyard production of Annie. I was hooked. That's one of my first real memories. It was so huge for me because my early stages of development were quite traumatic. Music, theater, characters: This world of imagination really helped me get outside of a wheelchair-centric existence. I really think that it has completely changed my life.
You're a Jersey girl. Did you make it into the city often as a kid to see Broadway?
It was my favorite thing in the world. I was also in a professional singing group when I was eleven years old. It was called the Kids 4 Kids Project. It raised money for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Through that I realized I could do what I love and help people. That is what I want to do with my career.
You ended up attending college for musical theater at NYU. Was there ever a time when you doubted that this is what you wanted to do?
I never doubted. I think the part that was challenging for me was figuring out how. That's where it got scary. It's one thing to talk and say I can do it, but the real test was in those dance classes when everyone was doing something I couldn't do. I had to quickly adapt and go with the flow. I had to show people. I have to say, the reason I feel like I got through NYU with such grace and success was my peers. They never doubted me for a moment. So I felt like I had this huge support system again. The first show I was ever cast in was a student production of Into the Woods. That was huge. I was out of my chair in the production, and I'm sure some of the faculty must have been having heart attacks. There are going to be people who are scared, but also people who are going to be inspired to do something different with me.
On that note, how did you get involved with The Glee Project?
The first time I saw Glee, I kind of lost my mind. I knew this was a show I had to be on. It was a crazy journey to get there. I ended up auditioning for The Glee Project online. I was called back for the first season, but I couldn't go because I was doing Spelling Bee at Paper Mill Playhouse. I was crushed about that. The second season came along, though. I auditioned and I ended up being a finalist on the show.
You were the runner-up, but you ended up on the show anyway, which is the goal. How much input did you have on your character, Betty?
On one of the episodes on The Glee Project, a bunch of the writers came and we performed for them. Ryan Murphy said to me, "I feel you could really play a character who is sexually promiscuous." I laughed and my mom died in her shoes. I do have an energy that can read very sexy. It's important because I don't think that is portrayed much on TV. If someone is in a wheelchair, it's about their wheelchair. It's not usually about their sexuality. That's a place where a lot of writers are nervous to go, but Ryan said that's what the character had to be. I was on the same page. I didn't want it to be about the chair.
So what's next?
I've actually written a one-woman show about it called Finding Glee. I'm going to do it at 54 Below in December. Of course, I have the show at 54 Below on Monday first.
So you're appearing there a lot.
It's so cool! That's why I'm excited to do my show there. It's new, but it has this charm and energy of Studio 54. Even though it's new, it feels legendary.
What do you order for your food/drink minimum?
Well, I'm not a big drinker, but I do love a good gin-and-tonic. I also like a dirty martini. I could eat a jar of olives.
Is there a dream role you've always wanted to play?
I've always wanted to play Glinda in Wicked. I can't lie about that.
Watch a video below of Stroker singing "Popular" from Wicked on The Glee Project: