The Catholic University of America

Aug. 9, 2010

Legendary CUA Musical Theater Teacher Jane Pesci-Townsend Dies

  Jane Pesci-Townsend

Jane Pesci-Townsend, known for her larger-than-life style in the classroom and unflagging dedication to her musical theater students at The Catholic University of America, died Aug. 6 following a long battle with cancer. She was 51.

Also well known in Washington theater circles, Pesci-Townsend taught a popular Body Movement course as well as a Stage Deportment course, directed student productions and gave hour-long, back-to-back voice lessons in her campus office. Often the lessons were interrupted by a knock on the door or a phone call. Invariably it was a student, stopping by to say hello or calling to get her advice. Everyone got at least a couple of minutes of her time.

"I believe that I speak for the entire academic community when I state the deep sorrow we all feel in the passing of Jane Pesci-Townsend," said CUA Provost James Brennan. "Her connection to the university is really lifelong, but it is as a 'teacher' that she personified all that is noble in that title."

"She cared so deeply about student success and invested all of her herself in each student she touched. We shall all miss her so much," Brennan added.

Growing up, Pesci-Townsend spent a lot of time on campus, where her father, Frank Pesci, taught education courses and earned two degrees: a master's in 1956 and a doctorate in 1963. Her mother, Dorothy Daly Pesci, received a CUA bachelor's degree in nursing in 1956. As a child, Pesci-Townsend attended events on campus and later recalled the influence that drama department plays had on her life and career.

A four-time nominee for the Helen Hayes Award -- the Washington area's biggest acting honor -- Pesci-Townsend earned rave reviews on a June evening in 2002 when she filled in for Tony Award-winning actress Christine Baranski during a production of "Sweeney Todd" at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The headline on The Washington Post review read "For Standby, How 'Sweeney' It Is; Jane Pesci-Townsend Slays Sondheim Audience." The Post noted that her performance "was a triumph."

Pesci-Townsend continued to teach and direct productions at CUA's Benjamin T. Rome School of Music while she was ill. In her Body Movement class, she was the self-described "queen." Stuck to the door of her campus office was a sparkly, oval-shaped sticker that said "Diva."

But her brassy style in the classroom and unflinching critiques of student performances belied a soft spot for her students. Following her performance as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," she said "the biggest thrill" that night was having some of her CUA students in the house.

"I get choked up just talking about it," she said. "I'm always aware that I'm setting an example for these kids. To have students watch me during one of the most challenging experiences of my life is pretty profound."

Grayson Wagstaff, dean of music, noted that "her amazing spirit" and "courage" during her long illness were inspiring.

"I have often seen Jane struggling to make it up the stairs and into [the music school's] Ward Hall, but once she entered the building and began to teach or run rehearsals, she was transformed," said Wagstaff.

Pesci-Townsend grew up in New Carrolton, Md., and studied at Catholic University. She started working at CUA in fall 1994, teaching voice lessons. Eventually her duties expanded to include her course and directing shows. Appointed chair of the musical theater division in 2004, she directed productions of "Sweeney Todd," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." She was preparing to direct "Nine" this fall.

Later, working as co-chairs of the musical theater program, Pesci-Townsend and Tom Pedersen refined the program. With its emphasis on acting, stage body movement and dance as well as the highest level of music performance, the program "is without question one of the strongest in any university anywhere," Wagstaff noted.

"A great number of CUA alums state that Jane's class was a career-defining, revelatory experience," he added. "The number of CUA alums now performing on Broadway and throughout the U.S. each day is considerable; many of these students initially came to CUA specifically to study with Jane."

To view an online tribute to Pesci-Townsend and post a message, visit

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