Asmeret GhebremichaelTo theater fans, The Wiz is a show that won seven Tony awards, ran on Broadway for more than four years and was made into a movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. To Asmeret Ghebremichael, though, it’s the show in which she made both her amateur and professional performing debuts—and that’s her first big project of 2009.

Ghebremichael is in the cast of the Wiz that begins performances June 12 at City Center, this year’s installment of Encores! Summer Stars. When she was in high school, she landed her first professional job in a production of The Wiz at Pittsburgh’s Bynum Theater, directed by Billy Porter (like Ghebremichael, a native of Pittsburgh). She’d had her first-ever role in a musical when she played Dorothy in The Wiz in middle school.

After that sixth-grade Wiz, Ghebremichael announced to her family: “Okay, I want to move to New York, I want to go to NYU, and I want to be on Broadway.” Her mother and father, a nurse and electrical engineer who’d immigrated from the north African nation of Eritrea, were nonplussed: “When I said that I wanted to do this for a living, they had no idea what it entailed.” Yet their daughter managed to achieve all three goals within the decade: She made her Broadway debut in Footloose at age 18, just a few months into her freshman year at NYU.

Now, with another decade under her belt, Ghebremichael can also list these achievements: a featured role on Broadway, a scene in a major motion picture, ensemble parts in a string of hit musicals, and the female lead in an award-winning independent film.

After Footloose closed in mid-2000, Ghebremichael continued her studies at NYU and, following graduation, did a number of out-of-town shows. She returned to Broadway in late 2004 as part of the first replacement cast of Wicked, then after about a year took over an ensemble slot in Spamalot that included understudying the Lady of the Lake. In 2007, she was in the original cast of In the Heights off-Broadway. She departed the Broadway-bound show for a featured role in Legally Blonde: sorority girl Pilar, one of Elle Woods’ besties. “Those three girls,” says Ghebremichael, referring to Elle’s friends Pilar, Serena and Margot, “had the easiest job, and the most fun job. We were sort of the comic relief, and we were featured. We got to sing and we got to dance and we got to act and be funny—it was a little bit of everything.”

picGhebremichael had been runner-up for Pilar at the original cast auditions and ended up taking over for DeQuina Moore, who got the part. But it was only after Ghebremichael succeeded Moore as Pilar that MTV broadcast Legally Blonde—giving her a featured role in a TV special. She later appeared in a couple of episodes of the reality competition Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods, which also aired on MTV.

The Wiz, which is scheduled to run through July 5, is Ghebremichael’s first major production since Legally Blonde closed in October. She was just one week into rehearsals when I interviewed her last week and had only worked on the tornado and Munchkinland scenes at that point. Among her roles will be the Second Munchkin in “He’s the Wizard,” which five Munchkins sing with good witch Addaperle (Dawnn Lewis). In the original Broadway production, the Second Munchkin was played by Phylicia Rashad (then Phylicia Ayers-Allen)—“not a bad person to follow,” says Ghebremichael.

Another thing she has in common with Rashad is a sister who’s also a performer. Asmeret’s younger sib Semhar Ghebremichael has been in the Lion King tour and the Las Vegas Spamalot and recently had a brief dancing scene on 30 Rock. Though they both auditioned for City Center’s The Wiz as well as a regional Little Princess (which Asmeret got) and Shrek (which she didn’t), Asmeret downplays the competition. Even as children, there wasn’t too much rivalry, the big sis says: “She was much more into gymnastics and tumbling; I was more interested in the singing and the theatrical aspect.”

picAsmeret and her sister grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Churchill, in a home where their parents spoke the Eritrean language Tigrinya, which Asmeret says she can understand but not speak proficiently today. She’s always known other Eritreans, both in the Pittsburgh area and here in New York: “We have family and friends who live all over the place.” And while she admits to not doing much cooking of either Eritrean or American food, she’s still a fan of the popular Eritrean/Ethiopian dish injera—a flat, soury bread topped with spicy meats and vegetables. “There are plenty of restaurants in the city that serve it,” Ghebremichael says. “I also make my mother cook it and bring it with her when she visits.”

She visited her parents’ homeland as an adolescent, not long after Eritrea had prevailed in its three-decades-long war for independence from Ethiopia. A former Italian and British colony, Eritrea lies on the western shore of the Red Sea, across from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and borders Ethiopia and Sudan. Her parents came to the U.S. for college and stayed because of the war. They named their elder daughter after Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara. The true pronunciation is As-merit, but she goes by the Americanized Az-ma-rhett (her last name is pronounced Ghebra-mikell).

Asmeret began taking dance classes when she was 3—“because I had way too much energy, like a lot of people who start dancing.” A few years later, she switched to another studio and expanded from just ballet to jazz and tap. Voice lessons commenced when she was in middle school. During middle and high school, Ghebremichael came to New York a couple of times a year with her dance teacher and other students. On their first trip, they saw Tommy, Guys and Dolls and Annie Warbucks, but it was a show on a subsequent trip that stuck with her the most. “I remember seeing Vanessa Williams do Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Ghebremichael says. “For me, what was so inspiring was that, first of all, there was someone who looked like me in the lead role, and she was also doing everything—singing, dancing, acting. I thought: That’s kind of a dream part.” She waited at the stage door after the show to meet Williams. “She took a picture with me,” Ghebremichael recalls, still elated. “I was totally starstruck!”

picTo ensure she’d get to NYC, Ghebremichael applied only to New York colleges—Fordham, Columbia and NYU—but she was not so single-minded as far as her coursework. “I decided that I wanted to study something other than dance or drama,” she says, adding that it was “sort of at my parents’ urging, too.” She majored in communications at NYU and while she took voice classes at school, she headed off-campus (to Broadway Dance and Steps) for her dance training.

Though Ghebremichael worked professionally for over a year during college—some of it out of town—she graduated on time, and even gave the valedictory address at her 2002 commencement. At NYU, she was in the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars, an honors program for students of color in all different majors. Requirements included maintaining a 3.5 GPA, doing community service and meeting regularly with the group to discuss topics in various disciplines. “I knew I wanted to perform, so it was nice to have, sort of, both worlds,” Ghebremichael says of balancing performance classes and the honors program. For a Scholars trip to Brazil during her junior year, students selected specific aspects of Brazilian history, life or culture to study on-site. She chose capoeira, the acrobatic martial-arts-infused dance. “It’s such a part of their culture, they do it on the street,” she says. “One afternoon I ended up battling with some of the people on the street, throwing in my gymnastics.” She also bonded with some street children who’d been put in dance and other arts classes, staying in touch with them after she came home.

Ghebremichael had auditioned for Footloose before she began college. The show opened on Broadway as her freshman year was getting under way, but she hadn’t gotten into the original cast. A few months later, they needed an immediate replacement for Lori Holmes (who went on medical leave) and called her. She left Footloose for what was supposed to be a pre-Broadway tryout of Finian’s Rainbow. That production—directed by Lonny Price and starring Austin Pendleton, Brian Murray and then unknowns Denis O’Hare, Kate Jennings Grant and J. Robert Spencer—played the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and the Cleveland Playhouse, but its Broadway plans fell apart before the next intended stop, the Ahmanson in L.A.

Back in New York in 2000, Ghebremichael returned to Footloose for the remainder of its run. Then she turned her attention back to college full-time. After graduation, she went out on tour with Aida for a year, as a swing and understudy for Nehebka. Later, she performed in the Orfeh-headlined revue Nights on Broadway at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City. That show was choreographed by A.C. Ciulla, who’d worked on the Wiz she did in Pittsburgh and choreographed Footloose.

picFor City Center’s The Wiz, she’s reunited with other former colleagues. The Encores! production has the same creative team as In the Heights: director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire. They, obviously, harbor no hard feelings over her decision not to join In the Heights before it hit Broadway. “When I left In the Heights for Legally Blonde, there was talk of me coming back to do my track when it moved to Broadway,” she says. “It was really hard to make a decision because I’d created something and it was so personal. To everybody—we were all so involved emotionally with the show. But ultimately, I decided that for my career I needed to stay in Legally Blonde and focus on more featured, principal roles.”

“They’re still my family,” Ghebremichael says of the Heights folks, “and now I get to work with them again.” She’s especially excited to be dancing once more for Blankenbuehler, who choreographed the A Little Princess musical that Ghebremichael was in in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2004. “Andy has been so wonderful in letting his dancers just take the steps or whatever staging that he gives them and develop it. I always feel like an actor and a dancer doing his stuff,” she says. “The older I get, the more interested I am in not only a genre [of dance] but communicating the story—especially in a musical. Just walking across the stage and conveying some sort of message through your expression and your physicality.”

She also knew Lacamoire before In the Heights, having met him when she joined Wicked’s Broadway cast. From Wicked, she moved on to another juggernaut, Spamalot, where she occasionally got to cover the Lady of the Lake (then played by Lauren Kennedy), a role she’d desired since she first saw the show the previous year. While she was in Spamalot, castmate Steve Rosen asked her to be in an improv/sketch comedy show he’d co-created. It was Don’t Quit Your Night Job, which turned out to be something of juggernaut itself—albeit after-hours. After a monthly gig at Joe’s Pub downtown from mid-2006 to spring of ’07, the show moved to the HA! Comedy Club in the theater district for nightly performances; in late 2007, it took up residency at midtown’s Zipper Theater, and was performed there monthly until the Zipper shut down in January. Ghebremichael was in the show throughout its Joe’s Pub and Zipper runs, as her real “night job” changed from Spamalot to In the Heights to Legally Blonde. Among her Don’t Quit duties were singing the opening number and performing in the “NY2” skit—a spoof of NY1’s “On Stage,” with two actors playing critics reviewing shows improvised by other actors from audience suggestions for characters, titles and stars. “I think my favorite moment from that game was when I played Mrs. Butterworth,” says Ghebremichael. “I also got to play a Hebrew school dropout.”

picIn addition to those comedy shows, her work outside of musical theater includes a few movies. She appears in a scene with star Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic (due out on DVD later this month), portraying the receptionist at Alette magazine. And she has a principal role, as wedding singer Ivy, in The Drummer, an independent film about two people rediscovering their passion for music. It has screened at several film festivals nationwide and even won Best Short at some of them. On The Drummer’s website, the movie’s writer-director, Bill Block, mentions that Ghebremichael was virtually the only woman who auditioned for Ivy who didn’t sing “Defying Gravity.”

“When I got there,” she relates about the audition, “I realized that they were seeing a lot of Broadway girls, because they wanted whoever was playing Ivy to really be a singer. I had no idea what they were looking for, because they saw all different types of women. I sang ‘I Got It Bad’ by Duke Ellington, which is one of my favorite songs to sing.”

She also appears in another independent film seeking distribution: the thriller Red Hook, which stars Terrence Mann. She plays a cashier at an Internet café named Asmeret. Without knowing her, the screenwriter—who’d seen her in shows—named the character after her because he liked the name. When the director came to see In the Heights, she recalls, “he told me this story and asked me if I’d like to play myself.”

Back on stage, Ghebremichael appeared at Joe’s Pub in April—alongside Don’t Quit Your Night Job creators Rosen and Sarah Saltzberg, among others—in a one-night-only concert staging of The Czar of Rock and Roll, a 1989 musical by Lewis Black and the late Rusty Magee. She also recently participated in a reading of the American Idol-inspired “interactive” musical Superstar, which is hoping for a Broadway bow as early as next year.

Perhaps with Superstar, Ghebremichael will accomplish an as-yet unfulfilled goal: originating a role on Broadway. “I feel like my career has been full of me replacing people,” she says. Her tone is anything but complaining, but she does recall a number of times she went down to the wire for an original cast before the last cuts were made—Footloose and Aida, to name a couple. “In the beginning there was a lot of making it [through auditions] all day and then not getting it,” she says.

Of course, she still made it to Broadway a matter of months after arriving in New York. While she admits to being “a little spoiled” by her early success, she’s now experienced enough to have tasted disappointment as well as victory—and learned from both. “I think one of the most important things to remember is, you’re not going to get everything that you audition for,” she states. “You definitely want to go in there and have a great audition and give everything you have, but there are so many other reasons why you’re not getting this job—or you are getting the job—that if you try to dissect it, it’ll drive you nuts. I realized that if I didn’t get something that I really wanted, it’s only because down the road I got something that maybe I was meant to do.”

Photos of Asmeret, from top: during a rehearsal break for The Wiz; with her Legally Blonde sorority sisters Tracy Jai Edwards (left) and Annaleigh Ashford, on the “pink carpet” for the telecast’s premiere; with her real sister, Semhar, who’s also in showbiz; as the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, 2006; center, between Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robin De Jesus, in the off-Broadway production of In the Heights; opening Don’t Quit Your Night Job, with Maurice Murphy (left) and Derrick Baskin, last October. [Heights photo by Joan Marcus; Don’t Quit photo by Peter James Zielinski]