Born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Abell was raised in the Philadelphia and Chicago areas, studying viola, piano, organ, trumpet and voice. A member of the Berkshire Boy Choir, he sang in the 1971 world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The experience sparked his interest in theatrical compositions and fuelled a lasting passion for dramatic music.
In 1976, Abell enrolled at Yale University, where his teachers included John Mauceri. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Robert D. Levin at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau before returning to Yale to complete his B.A. in 1981. The following year, Abell participated in the inaugural Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute summer school, studying with Bernstein and Daniel Lewis. He continued his postgraduate training from 1983 to 1985 at the Juilliard School, under Jorge Mester and Sixten Ehrling.
One of Leonard Bernstein’s last protégés, he assisted the composer-conductor on many projects during the 1980s and helped prepare definitive editions of Bernstein’s musical theatre scores.
Abell made his professional debut conducting Bernstein’s Mass at Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in 1982. The following year he deputised at short notice for John Mauceri conducting Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Washington National Opera. In 1985 he made his New York City Opera debut conducting The Mikado. Abell led San Francisco Opera’s 1989 national tour of Carmen and was conductor for City Opera’s national tour of The Barber of Seville in 1994.
Since moving to London in 1996, Abell has conducted orchestras in the UK and abroad, including The Hallé, City of Birmingham, Bournemouth, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Seattle Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony and West Australian Symphony orchestras. He is a regular guest conductor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra, with whom he has appeared five times at the Proms.
The driving force behind Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebration at the 2010 BBC Proms, Abell subsequently conducted the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables at the O2 Arena, which has been seen worldwide on television and released on DVD. Both the 25th and 10th Anniversary concerts have been extensively broadcast by PBS to boost fund-raising efforts.
Abell was Music Director of the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies from its opening in March 2010 until March 2011. Between 2011 and 2014, he conducted the French premieres of four Sondheim musicals: Follies at the Opéra de Toulon, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
Abell conducted London's Laurence Olivier Awards ceremony from 2011 to 2014.
As a musicologist, Abell has helped restore clarity to musical theatre scores affected by accretions of revival productions and poorly preserved source materials, notably West Side Story. Along with pianist and musicologist Seann Alderking, he edited a complete edition of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, published in 2014. It is one of the first American musicals to be published in a critical edition.