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 that would fit new lyrics to 14 classic melodies from W.S. Gilbert and Arthur 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.

“If you knew Judas Iscariot, you might very well be tempted to put on a musical.”

Steadman, 54, first met Maxwell in 1968.

Maxwell bought Steadman’s exhibitions business for about $ 25 million and it became part of Maxwell Business Communications in 1988.

The Czechoslovakia-born 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, remains unknown.

Steadman said Maxwell’s outsized persona “struck me as very Gilbert and Sullivan.”

However, “Maxwell, the Musical” is still but a gleam in Steadman’s eye. A backers’ preview scheduled for June 28 has been canceled.

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 lawyers.

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.”

Much of the news conference was devoted to answering a June 2 letter from lawyers for Maxwell’s youngest son, Kevin, saying the musical prejudiced the case against Kevin, accused of stealing money from the Maxwell empire.

Kevin Maxwell last year became Britain’s biggest bankrupt with debts of more than 400 million pounds, then worth roughly $ 800 million.