It’s a little bit funny to Isaac Cole Powell, the lead in the Broadway revival of West Side Story, that he stars in the musical as Tony. When he was about 12 years old, and developed an interest in community theater, the first show he ever auditioned for was West Side Story. He didn’t get a single part.
“I didn’t really have much of a relationship to [West Side Story]. It was never in my bucket list for things to do in conservatory—other boys in my class would be assigned songs from West Side Story in singing class and I never got assigned those songs,” he confessed on a Monday afternoon in Harlem, the neighborhood where he resides. “I didn’t grow up watching musical movies or anything. I never saw a place for myself in the show, especially after not getting into it. I was like, ‘I don’t belong anywhere in there. There’s not a part for me in that.’ ”
But once this revival of the musical came around, Powell had a change of heart. It wasn’t even the fact that this was West Side Story, a musical beloved by many for decades, that drew Powell in, as much as it was the creative team behind it. “I still didn’t really think there was a spot for me in the show, but I was like, ‘I would take any role in this, I would sweep the floors in the rehearsal rooms just to watch these people create this piece of theater.’ I’d been fans of Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for years, so the thought of this production happening almost felt like some sort of thing I had just dreamed,” he said. “To end up playing a central role in this piece is beyond my dreams. It’s pretty incredible.”
The charming 25-year-old is stealthily built, like a prizefighter, but wears a boyish grin. He grew up in North Carolina, surrounded by nature and manicured gardens. Before he ever had the idea to become an actor, he could often be caught picking flowers. “It’s just something I’ve always loved, putting together arrangements and anything I can involve the creative side of my brain and marry it with the love of nature that I have, because that’s not something I get to do too much in my profession.”
His father owned a landscaping company, and the family’s yard remained pristine. If you ask his mom, Powell has been in love with picking flowers since he was 3 years old. “We were at a water park, and I just wandered off. Of course my mom was freaking out. She was like, ‘My toddler is missing at a water park!’ She was fearing the worst,” he said. The story has a happy ending, though: “They found me behind this retaining wall picking flowers.”
A few months after Powell graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2017, he booked his first Broadway show, Once on This Island. When he first arrived in the city, he started as an unpaid intern doing floral arrangements, and after the show closed, he took a part time job at Putnam & Putnam, a boutique floral-design company. Then he booked West Side Story.
The revival of Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 musical—and the creative team behind it—has not debuted without receiving some criticism. The story about a pair of star-crossed lovers—one a white American and the other a Puerto Rican immigrant—has been called out by The New York Times for its “cartoonish stereotypes of macho teenage gangsters and hysterical lovers.” In the revival, the idea of whether or not modernizing a musical filled with ethnic stereotypes would still take the real history of Puerto Ricans in New York out of context is being called into question.
Is this revival successful in its attempts to decolonize a classic? The answer, Powell said, isn’t a simple yes or no. But what the actor seems to love the most about this revival is that it is a piece of theater. It is not static, it’s a living work of art. And he wants people to be open to the fact that a form of art as malleable as theater may make a few changes to your favorite American musical. “I think because people have so many expectations wrapped around it, and so many associations and preconceptions about the piece, they don’t want to see it done any other way. They want it to remain a perfect piece in their minds. But it’s been preserved in film. That’s not going anywhere, no one is messing with the original,” Powell said. “I think that’s why it’s time to start playing with it and turning it on its head, because that piece is always going to be preserved. What we’re doing does not discredit the original that can always be there for people to cherish and enjoy, but I think because of that, we should be able to play with it now and change it around a bit.”
He would also like you to sideline any expectations you have about not only the source material but what makes a Broadway musical or a piece of theater in the first place. “If you really take an objective view at what we’re doing and view it as a piece of theater, not just a classic Broadway musical, not just as West Side Story, people would take away a lot more. I see a lot of audience members who come in and don’t have those preconceived notions of what a Broadway musical is, or West Side Story, or these characters, and I think they have a much better time. That said, I also meet a lot of people who do come in with those expectations and are die-hard fans of West Side Story and love what we’re doing with it. I think it goes both ways,” he said.
It’s true that this revival, controversial as it may be, has shaken the form. Screens are everywhere on this stage. It incorporates some prerecorded footage, as well as live footage taken during the production. (Powell added that it’s inspired him to look for more projects that involve getting in front of the camera for a film or television series.) And 34 young performers, of varying ethnicities and gender identities, are making their Broadway debut.
When Powell signed on as Tony, he wasn’t exactly sure how the creative team behind the musical was planning to historically situate the classic story in a new era, but he knew they were trying to modernize it. “I felt, the way Ivo was coaching me through auditions, that they were after a more contemporary feel to these characters. They wanted them more recognizable as kids in the 21st century, which made it a lot more accessible to me and also stripped me of my notions of what I had associated with West Side Story, and what I had associated with Tony,” he said. “That really liberated me, to be able to find my own voice in it and do it my way. I wasn’t really interested in telling that story in a way that’s already been told. That’s not something that comes naturally to me, and it’s not something I thought I would have fun doing. Getting to discover this character in a new way and getting to filter it through my experiences and my interpretation of it is what made it worthwhile for me, and what continues to make it fun for me every night.”
And how exactly does Powell’s version of Tony compare to the original? “I think my Tony is funnier,” he said with a laugh. “He’s a little edgier, a little rougher around the edges. And I really take into account the fact that this is somebody who comes from a violent past, somebody who’s been in a gang before, which is not usually the way I’ve seen Tony portrayed. He’s usually this clean-cut, sweet boy next door, which is not what it is on paper. He used to be in a violent gang. That was always perplexing to me. This squeaky-clean boy, when he becomes capable of violence, you’re almost surprised by it. But I think in the way we’re presenting this character, the story seems inevitable.”
In other words, he would like you to consider this analogy: the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story is to the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet as this gritty 2020 revival of West Side Story is to Baz Luhrmann’s flashy take on Romeo and Juliet. “These are counterpart productions,” he said. “I would say I’m more of the Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo than the Leonard Whiting Romeo.”
Around the same time he moved to New York for his Broadway debut, he was scouted on Instagram by the New Pandemics, an LGBTQ+ modeling agency. He quickly joined its roster, and continues to do some modeling work from time to time, including for Helmut Lang’s fall 2020 campaign.
Even though, as Powell mentioned earlier, his profession doesn’t allow for much time in nature, he’s also found a hobby that allows him to remain close to his boyish, outdoorsy roots: tree frogs. “I wandered into a pet store one day because I had nothing better to do, and I was looking at puppies. There was this tank behind me that looked empty, but there was a log in there that said they had tree frogs, so I asked one of the workers at the store to show me a frog, and he pulled one out and put it on my arm,” he said. “I just became obsessed with this frog. It was like I’d found my soulmate. It was this adorable, alien-looking frog, and the way it felt on my skin, the way it was looking at me, I was like, This is my new best friend, and I don’t care how much it costs but it’s coming home with me. That was my first frog. I got that one in 2013. I’ve since gotten three more.”
“I don’t have a ton of time to do other things,” Powell admitted with a laugh. “Thank god I stay relatively busy as an actor.”