Sunday 28th February would have been Jan Sundell’s 85th birthday. It was instead the day when her family, friends and the theatre community gathered to give her a splendid farewell.
The historic Garrison Church in the Rocks was the setting for the celebration of Jan’s life. She had chosen the location and planned the music, if she must have a funeral it was going to be the way she wanted it. That was Jan to a tee, always the organiser.
As theatre ‘Angels’ go, Jan Sundell was in the Archangel class. She was an Ambassador for Actors Benevolent Fund; a role she took very seriously though serious was not a word we generally associated with Jan. She was one of the funniest people we knew. Her huge blue eyes sparkled with mischief, a naughty smile would spread on her face and another story would be told; often self-deprecating and always hilarious.
At every ABF event, Jan arrived with an entourage. At the Cause Celeb Cabaret nights she would set the pace by buying multiple tables and loading them with delicious food. Her many guests would be firmly instructed to support the Fund by scooping up bundles of raffle tickets and making generous donations. Jan always supported even the smallest of the ABF events, and if she could not be there in person, there would be a donation in the mail.
Jan’s funeral was a blend of her family life with her late husband Jim Sundell, and the show business family she loved and gave so much to. Simon Kenway the Artistic Director of Pacific Opera, was at the keyboards to accompany Brad Cooper as he sang arias from German Opera and Weimar cabaret. Jan especially requested I Dreamed a Dream to be sung at her funeral and Brad delivered it with heart. Amy Harris the Darlinghurst Theatre Company Artistic Director, brought together a choir to sing “The Things I Did For Love” from "A Chorus Line", one of the last productions Jan supported. As the family escorted her coffin out of the church the congregation sang “ You Are My Sunshine”. A song Jim Sundell would sing to Jan accompanied by his piano accordion.
All these moments had resonances with Jan’s life especially Brad Cooper’s performance.
The night before Jan took her final bow she went to the Darlinghurst Theatre Co cabaret show “Berlin Electric” starring Brad Cooper and Musical Director Bev Kennedy - a fusion of German opera and Weimar songs, her favourites. She was with her friend and neighbour Helena Harris who reported that there were no mocktails for Jan that night – she was very specific about her gin and tonic.
Despite being extremely ill, Jan rose to the occasion laughing with friends before the show and sharing drinks with the cast afterwards. Jan told the taxi driver on the way home what a fabulous time they’d just had. Reluctant for the night to end she had to be persuaded by Helena not to open champagne and party on. That was to be her last night in this world.
The farewell continued with a wake at the just opened Bar At The End Of The Wharf at Sydney Theatre Company’s newly renovated home. “Jan’s timing was impeccable,” said Helena when the bar was confirmed. A jazz band and French champagne welcomed Jan’s friends. Among the crowd was John Krummel, former Artistic Director of the Marian Street Theatre. Jan had worked with Marian Street for fifteen years and Krummel credited her fundraising efforts with keeping the theatre afloat. She had been a keen supporter of Sydney Theatre Company, especially in the years when her close friend Wayne Harrison was Artistic Director. Nancye Hayes was present representing the theatre that bears her name and that Jan supported from its inception. Olivia Ansell, new Artistic director of Sydney Festival, raised a glass in recognition of Jan’s past patronage for her “Hidden Sydney” show in Kings Cross.
Jan had been an enthusiastic supporter of new work that ranged from “Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined” to the opera “Cloudstreet”, Trevor Ashley’s cabaret festival, many shows at the Eternity including “A Chorus Line”, and for the Hayes she was production patron behind “Melba”, “Darlinghurst Nights” and “American Psycho”.
Her passion for supporting young artists resulted in her becoming the President of The Opera Foundation for Young Australians, she supported Pacific Opera and Jan was also pivotal in raising funds for the American Institute of Musical Studies Award (AIMS) and went on, with husband Jim, to initiate the AIMS Sundell Study Award – always supporting the artists– listening and giving encouragement.
The Wharf was packed with actors, producers, artists, playwrights, arts administrators and so many who had loved and admired this remarkable woman. On a sunny Sunday overlooking the blue of Sydney Harbour, in a theatre bar, we all drank a toast in champagne to Jan Sundell; a Grande Dame of the performing arts and much loved Ambassador for Actors Benevolent Fund.
Just one wharf across in the Shore Apartments is where Jan had lived. She had chosen that location to be close to the Sydney Theatre Company. It was here that Jan quietly passed away, close to the theatres she had loved.
Jan's full eulogy is on the Vale page under About Us