Jill Dell’Abate is a music contractor, professional singer, and production manager. She has handled the production for over 70 Broadway and Off-Broadway cast albums including Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, Jagged Little Pill, Waitress, and more. She contracts for film, TV, and live events including the Latin Grammys and America’s Got Talent. She also sings as part of the house band for many live events and award shows, such as Songwriters Hall of Fame and ASCAP We Write the Songs.
Wow-Worthy in the Studio
We asked Jill to talk about her work coordinating Broadway cast albums.
Jill Dell’Abate: Working as a production coordinator on Broadway cast albums is much different from doing the same job on pop records. Because you are working with three different unions (American Federation of Musicians, SAG-AFTRA and AEA), the job of putting together a recording schedule that works to satisfy the union requirements and at the same time works for the cast can be challenging. The first thing I do when I’m hired is put a budget together. There are contractual payments due to different members of the team and I need to be in touch with the production company to find out what they are. Sometimes directors, choreographers, sound designers, vocal arrangers, and more need to be accounted for on the budget. For all Broadway cast albums and some Off-Broadway cast albums, the AFofM music coordinator for the show also contracts the album. If there is no required contractor, I will do the AFofM contracting for the cast album. That happens a lot on Off-Broadway cast albums. Otherwise, I will reach out to that contractor to get their numbers, and then I need a detailed cast and song breakdown. I make an extensive grid to show who sings on what song and in what capacity (for budget and scheduling purposes). After that, the job is much the same as any other album; booking the studio and engineer and rental gear, organizing cartage, and of course, the most important element of any cast album, CATERING! A well-fed company is a happy company! Once this is all in place, the fun begins. Being in the control room and hearing the performances can be mind-blowing. It’s an honor to be able listen to everyone sing in such a private and personal arena. I’ve worked on about 70 cast albums (including many of the Playbills that you have displayed on your wall).
There was something special and wonderful about every single cast album I have worked on but some of my favorites were Hamilton (what else is new?), Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, Spamalot, Waitress, Jagged Little Pill, The Color Purple (both albums), Hedwig and the Angry Inch, anything that Nathan Lane has done, and On Your Feet, mostly because of the challenge of recording in a theater, which was a huge learning experience for me. My first cast album was Stephen Sondheim’s Passion in 1994. I literally had no idea what I was doing. Just recently I recorded Kiss Me, Kate with Paul [Gemignani] again, and when he told me my recording schedule was perfect, it was such a validation for me!
Wow-Worthy on the Stage
We asked Jill to talk about her work as a professional singer.
Jill Dell’Abate: One of things I love the most about being a background singer in a house band situation is the challenge. For most gigs, we only have hours together to learn the harmonies and sometimes create the parts. We’re usually given the tracks in advance, and it’s our job to recreate them with the two or three singers who are hired. When I sing at the Songwriter Hall of Fame Awards, for example, we need to learn about 15 songs for one concert, and the entire thing happens over two days. We need to have a command of what we’re performing by the time the first artist arrives (mere hours after we do). It’s also such a thrill to be able to sing with so many different artists and different genres in one concert. Singing with Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder was a high for all of us, but the list is endless: Chrissy Hynde, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Chaka Khan, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Nicks, Chicago, Petula Clark, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor . . . literally hundreds since I first started singing with the house band many years ago. When I sang as part of the house band for the Gershwin Prize at the White House, we were honoring Burt Bacharach, who is an idol of mine. Singing “What’s New Pussycat” with Mike Myers was hilarious, but nothing was more exciting than standing on the stage in the East Room when they announced President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama. It was almost impossible to concentrate as we all kept looking at them sitting in the front row.
We asked Jill to talk about her contracting work.
Jill Dell’Abate: Because I worked with Phil Ramone for over 20 years, I had opportunities I could never have otherwise dreamed of. He met me as a singer and soon had me singing on all his albums as well as coordinating. I would watch as other contractors booked orchestras and big bands for albums I was working on, and eventually I realized I could do what they were doing. Phil totally supported it, and I added that to the list of jobs I did for Phil. George Michael’s “Songs From the Last Century” stands out in my mind. I was the production coordinator, but I also contracted the orchestra for arrangements written by Torrie Zito, Rob Mounsey, Rob Mathes, and more. George was very nice and easy to work with, and so appreciative of all of our efforts. He loved the end product, so that was a joy for me. Phil introduced me to Tony Bennett, and I began contracting for all his records, even after Phil passed away. I just recently coordinated and contracted the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga album which will be released this spring. Getting to work with a legend like Tony was most definitely a highlight for me. Not only is he a super talent, he’s also a gentleman. Eventually, I started to make a name for myself and was asked to contract for concerts and television. One of my shows is America’s Got Talent. They hired me about nine years ago when they first moved to NYC, and when they went back to LA, I continued to contract for them. Being the AFofM contractor for this show is different in that I have to be a casting director and contractor at the same time. Every on-stage musician is vetted through the creative team, so most of the time, those musicians are hired based on the way they look. There was a contestant who was in his mid-30’s and had a beard, so I was asked to book a rhythm section of men all in their 30’s with beards. Once there was a 13-year-old female contestant, so I had to book a rhythm section of young women between the ages of 15 and 19. It can be stressful, especially when you’re working on a live show and these directives come in at the 11th hour.
Jamie Maletz: What are your favorite and least favorite things about what you do?
Jill Dell’Abate: I have a creative side but I also have a very organized side, so I feel very lucky to be able to do all of these things as part of my career. I love so much about everything I do. Utilizing my creative side is particularly satisfying, so singing and contracting are favorites of mine, but cast albums are also up there because there are so many wonderful performances I get to bear witness to. My least favorite thing to do is probably filing the AFofM and SAG-AFTRA reports, because it’s purely administrative and can be tedious.
JM: What has felt like the most wow-worthy thing you’ve done thus far?
Jill Dell’Abate: I think singing at the White House was definitely one. Also contracting and singing for the “Pavarotti and Friends” concerts from 1996-2002 was pretty dreamy. There were many incredible artists who performed each year, such as James Brown, Barry White, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Celene Dion, and more. We were all flown to Modena, Italy, first class and stayed in a wonderful hotel in this quaint little city, which is Pavarotti’s home town. The stage was built in a piazza and the entire thing was outdoors. It was surreal standing on that stage looking out at thousands of Italians. I will never get over it. One year, Stevie Wonder performed “Higher Ground.” There is no bigger fan than I am, so I was on the moon singing that iconic song with him. Another amazing opportunity I had was to be the associate producer of James Taylor’s “Hourglass” album. The entire record was recorded on Martha’s Vineyard, and we all lived together in a big house down the road from James. We cooked together, ate together, and I even went kayaking with James in a two-person kayak on Menemsha Pond! I coordinated, contracted and sang on that record. I am also a huge James Taylor fan, and that experience is indelibly etched in my mind.
JM: Do you have a favorite story or memory that you can share with us?
Jill Dell’Abate: I could tell you a lot of stories, but then I’d have to move to Siberia! So much of what I have witnessed is intensely personal and private. There is one story that stands out in my mind and in the minds of others who were there. When we were in Italy rehearsing for our very first “Pavarotti and Friends” concert and PBS special, Liza Minelli was one of the artists. She and Pavarotti performed “New York, New York” as a duet. However, after the first rehearsal, Luciano decided he wasn’t comfortable singing the notes in the key change, and otherwise the key they had chosen was perfect for both of their voices, so Luciano told Phil to have the arranger modulate down for the finale. Of course, modulating down would make the finale completely anti climatic and not ideal for Liza’s voice, but Phil had to ask Liza, who said “absolutely not.” And Phil was put in the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate with two superstars and their respective music directors. It turned into an episode of The Three Stooges. There was literally no winning. But Phil being Phil figured it out. He waited until they were all in a room together, brought it up, and let the two of them duke it out. It was amazing to watch Liza and Luciano go back and forth, each politely trying to one-up the other. In any case, it went on for a while, but can guess who won? It was Liza. And on stage at the performance, Liza egged Luciano on and it turned into something really fun, and in the end it was a wonderful performance and everyone was happy! You would have never known what it took to get to this place.
JM: What’s next for you? What are your wow-worthy goals for the future?
Jill Dell’Abate: It was always a dream of mine to be the first female contractor on Broadway. I didn’t get to realize that dream, as other women I respect and admire got there first– such as Kristy Norter, Kimberlee Wertz, and Talitha Fehr– but truthfully, I am proud to be in their company. Last year, I was hired to be the music coordinator for Elvis Costello’s new show Face in the Crowd, which will be performed at The Public when things open back up. I’m really looking forward to working on this show and hopefully others down the road. I’m also very much looking forward to working with the music director to put an orchestra together that is more gender and racially balanced. I feel very fortunate that the music director is on the same page and totally supportive of this.
JM: Why did you join Maestra?
Jill Dell’Abate: As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten more important to me to try and mentor younger people, and particularly, as your mission statement says, under-represented minorities. And it’s been something that I’ve been doing my whole career. In fact, I had told Emily Grishman that when I was contracting early on in my career, I was contracting a Natalie Cole record, and I found out from one of the engineers on the project that I had been the subject of gossip. Because this sort of “Good Old Boys” male contractor said, “Who contracted that album?” and the engineer said “Jill Dell’Abate,” and he went, “Oh yeah, the chick contractor.” Because I had the reputation of hiring more women than men in my orchestras. I was wholly unaware that I was doing this. I was just hiring the right people for the job. But at that time, in the early ‘90s, women were really under-represented, except for strings and things like that– and even so, it wasn’t unusual to see an entire room full of white men, and older ones for the most part. You know, they ruled the scene. And I got crap for actually booking women. And it was so much so that I actually started paying attention. It was unbelievable that I would actually do this, but I was young and it was a different time– I started wondering, do I have to hire at least 50/50 instead of hiring who I think is right? So I’ve always felt very strongly about hiring people who might not otherwise get the opportunity. I love the Maestra mission statement. And I’m also just in awe of the members — Georgia Stitt, and I could name fifteen others off the top of my head that I’m just in awe of and respect so much.
JM: And why do you think the work that Maestra does is important?
Jill Dell’Abate: In this era where people are more conscious of social justice, I think it’s becoming a little more commonplace to think about this. But it’s still not as common as it should be, and there shouldn’t be this kind of disparity between men and women in orchestras. It’s unbelievable that it’s still going on. I think that drawing attention to it and working for the greater good is really, really important.
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, Emily Grishman, Rona Siddiqui, Sheilah Rae, Kathy Sommer, Kristy Norter, Elena Bonomo, Ann Klein, Lynne Shankel, Irene Sankoff, Carmel Dean, Lauren Pritchard, Angelica Chéri, and Shaina Taub