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French horn player Shelagh Abate ’97
At five minutes to 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon in late August, Shelagh Abate takes her seat in the orchestra pit of New York City’s Marquis Theatre, at Broadway and 46th Street. The show is Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical biography of Evita Perón, starring Ricky Martin and Elena Roger. The 1,611-seat theater is packed.
In the pit—a well-worn space that barely accommodates the show’s 17 musicians—the atmosphere is relaxed. Orchestra rules stipulate all-black clothing; the violinist is in a cocktail dress and heels, the trombonist in T-shirt and toe socks. Abate, the lone French horn, opts for business-casual in slacks and a sweater.
She takes a last sip of water—she’ll go through two bottles before the show is over—and it’s curtains up. Evita is all music, no dialogue. The orchestra won’t stop playing for the next hour.
Like many working musicians, Abate is agile. She plays with the Triton Brass Quintet, which she cofounded in Boston, and the Vermont Symphony, where she is the principal horn. She sits in with the Brazilian/Cuban jazz big band Panamericana in New York. She has played with Joni Mitchell and Placido Domingo, and you can hear her in the Coca-Cola commercial at AMC cinemas and on NFL Films soundtracks. Abate’s husband is a professional musician too (trumpet in the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark orchestra). “We live like vampires,” she says. “We work at night, every night. If one of us had a 9-to-5 job, we’d never be in the house at the same time.”
Abate fell for the French horn at fourth grade band tryouts. At Boston College, she majored in music, then earned a master’s at UMass-Amherst and a Artist Diploma at the New England Conservatory. In 2005 she moved to New York, and within the year a conductor, impressed by her work as a substitute on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, gave her a contract for Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White. The production flopped, but Abate’s career was launched. Other Broadway credits include Mary Poppins and Wicked.
Act One finishes at the Evita matinee—the seventh of eight weekly shows—and the orchestra takes 10 minutes to cool off, chat, and grab a quick snack backstage. The stage manager peeks in. “Are we places?” asks the violin. “We’re places,” says the manager. Abate heads back to her chair and the start of Act Two.
Tim Heffernan is a New York-based writer.
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