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The life and times of Robert Maxwell, in song

Robert Maxwell's life and mysterious death exceed anyone's definition of high drama, but a former associate nonetheless hopes to stage Maxwell, the Musical, an updated operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.

"You can't love a crook, but you can be fascinated by a crook," Evan Steadman, producer of the planned $1.66-million musical, said Wednesday after a news conference touting the projected February opening.

Maxwell, 68, died Nov. 5, 1991, while cruising off the Canary Islands. The cause of his death and the whereabouts of money from his employees' pension funds remain unknown.

Steadman, 54, who met Maxwell in 1968, said Maxwell's outsized persona "struck me as very Gilbert and Sullivan." However, the musical is still but a gleam in Steadman's eye.

The updated lyrics aren't finished, only one of 11 cast members has been named, and Maxwell's son Kevin is making threatening noises through his attorneys.

The show fits new lyrics to 14 melodies from W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Rewriting The Pirates of Penzance, Steadman's version goes: "Better far to live and die under a darkened cloudless sky; Than watch the business empire fail, be charged with fraud and end in jail."

The rise and fall of Robert Maxwell, according to Steadman, "was hilariously funny if it didn't personally affect you . . . I despise the man for what he did. I have a fascination; I have a horror."