Farewell, my sister, fare thee well.
The elements be kind to thee, and make
Thy spirits all of comfort: fare thee well.
On September 14, 2016, CultureVulture lost one of its leading ladies. Suzanne Weiss, who had reviewed theater, opera, and dance for this website for more than a decade, passed away after a long illness. She was several weeks shy of her 80th birthday, and she had planned to review a number of shows well into the fall season and beyond.
Her indomitable spirit, extraordinary energy, and unique style endeared her not only to CultureVulture’s editors, but also to the thousands who read her reviews and trusted her judgment. It was not uncommon for Suzanne to attend three openings a week, filing her review of each the following morning. She loved the grandness of opera in big houses (whether in her hometown of Chicago, or in San Francisco, New York, or Europe, where she traveled frequently), but she was also equally at home in small theaters watching the shoestring premiere of a new play. She was particularly fond of classical ballet (a dance form she had aspired to as a young woman); her reviews of dancers and choreographers always included a surprising perspective that only someone who knew the art as a former student could: “I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of elbows in a ballet before,” she wrote of Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography in the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Cinderella.”
Whether deconstructing a drama by Shaw, a musical by Sondheim, or a reimagining of “Swan Lake,” Suzanne elucidated her perceptions in clear, concise language, imbued with humor and the understanding that audiences should never be talked down to, relating everything as if she were sitting on a couch next to you having a chat. She also had a knack for writing a good “kicker”: a closing line that summarizes a review with a pithy witticism, a tongue-in-cheek observation, or a poetic musing that prompts a smile or sigh. A sampling of her best:
- On a new musical based on Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling hero: “If you have a romantic bone in your body, go see ‘Cyrano.’ And tell him I send my love.”
- On Terence Blanchard’s jazz opera “Champion” about a tormented welterweight boxer: “I wouldn’t look to see it, for example, at the Met. Nevertheless, with some loss of the extra weight and tightening of the belt, I wouldn’t count it out.”
- On Puccini’s “La Bohème” (which she never tired of reviewing): “Let’s raise yet another glass to Puccini’s perennial bohemians. Long may they love.”
- And on a mixed-bag presentation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”: “The Lamplighters manage to pull some moments to treasure from amidst the junk, raising dumpster-diving to the level of an art.”
Despite her considerable erudition and ability to turn a phrase, Suzanne never wielded her talent in a way to inflict intentional harm. The magnanimity and fairness of her criticism rose above even the worst performances she reviewed, and she never stooped to humiliate honest effort with a withering remark, however tempted she might be by a potential zinger. She reserved her best writing to a knowledgeable post-mortem of what didn’t work and (more often) what worked well in everything she saw. In this sense, she advanced the art of criticism, enlightening those on both sides of the footlights.
To those who knew her, Suzanne embodied a grace and lightness of spirit that embraced her large family and the many friends she made in the realms of journalism and the arts she relished covering. She dispensed sage advice in matters ordinary and profound, sharing commonsense guidance when the occasion called for it (“Go and live your life,” she counseled a grieving editor. “Your husband would have wanted that”). In the last months of her life, Suzanne suffered the loss of a beloved teenage grandson to an incurable disease. A friend admired the moving eulogy she wrote, noting that “words are your tears.” For Suzanne, a wife and mother and grandmother who nonetheless considered herself first and foremost a writer, those four words struck a lovely chord.
As we, her colleagues at CultureVulture, shed tears of our own at her departure, we can also turn to her many fine words to recall the music of her mind in these pages.