Ginger Rogers, we hardly knew ya. Sure, we know you danced with Fred Astaire, could sing and had wicked comic timing.

But really, what do we know about you?

Arizona Theatre Company's season opener, "Backwards in High Heels," will fill us in about the movie star who was born Virginia Katherine McMath in 1911 and rose to fame during the golden days of Hollywood musicals - the 1930s and '40s.

"I found her to be fascinating," said Christopher McGovern, who conceived and wrote the musical with Lynnette Barkley. "I felt she was an unsung hero."

McGovern, who admits to a serious weakness for musicals from Rogers' area, also wrote a couple of tunes to go with the lush music by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

Rogers was a feisty actress, an eloquent dancer and Fred Astaire's most famous partner. They made 10 musical films together during the 1930s, offering an escape from the Depression with such hits as "Top Hat" and "Shall We Dance."

Fred and Ginger became one word - FredandGinger.

And McGovern wanted to give Rogers her own identity.

"I wanted to keep the focus on Ginger," he said.

"The play is really about her, and her mom. Her mother had had a little bit of success prior to Ginger's - she was a screenwriter. She knows what Hollywood is like, and she tries to dissuade Ginger."

"Ginger Rogers is a very interesting woman, and she was a bit of a trailblazer," said Scott Schwartz, who directs the production and worked closely with McGovern to sharpen the script.

"She was partly responsible for women getting more control, rights and money," Schwartz continued.

The script, which borrows from Rogers' autobiography, "My Story" (HarperCollins, 1991), looks at a specific period in her life.

"We follow her through her teen and Hollywood years, and end with a certain success she had," Schwartz said. "We're only dealing with about 15 years."

And, economically speaking, most of those 15 years mirror today.

"It was interesting to do a show that was about another time that was similar. The (FredandGinger) movies were this wonderful flight of fancy," Schwartz said. "I was hoping the show would be a flight of fancy, a departure back to a more fanciful era."

While the story isn't about Fred and Ginger, you can't write about Rogers without including Astaire, who makes an appearance, and the music of the era.

McGovern, who also arranged the music, set out to use some of those old standards to push the story of Rogers, her mother and behind-the-scenes machinations forward.

"Part of the challenge was to make nothing superfluous - that the songs really do propel the plot," McGovern said.

"And I wanted the audience to hear the lyrics in a new way."

The audience also will hear new songs by McGovern, written in the style of the standards in the play.

"Cheeky, wasn't it?" he said about putting his tunes next to ones by Gershwin and the others.

Cheeky, perhaps, but necessary.

"I found there weren't songs that worked in specific places. But I wouldn't dream of comparing myself to them."

Nor would Anna Aimee White, who plays Rogers, dream of comparing herself to the actress.

But she's bound and determined to emulate Rogers.

"It's a dream role," said White, who also played it in Los Angeles and Florida, and will travel with the show to San Jose, Calif., and Cleveland. (ATC, San Jose Rep and the Cleveland Playhouse are co-producing the show.)

"She isn't only a great dancer - tap and ballroom - she's very funny and dramatic."

White used to watch the Fred and Ginger movies with her grandparents, and she revisited a few of them to prepare for this role.

"I wanted to make sure I had the dance style correct," she said.

She'll be getting a bit of help in that from choreographer Patti Colombo. And White will be able to get in the mood with period costumes by designer Alejo Vietti.

"I have 21 beautiful costumes that people associate with Fred and Ginger," she said.

"If I'm not singing and dancing, I'm changing clothes."

If you go

"Backwards in High Heels"

• Presented by: Arizona Theatre Company.

• By: Christopher McGovern, Lynette Barkley.

• Director: Scott Schwartz.

• When: Previews 7:30 p.m. today, Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Continues through Oct. 2.

• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Tickets: $35-$86.

• Reservations, information: www.aztheatreco. org or 622-2823.

• Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with intermission.

• Cast: Matthew LaBanca, Heather Lee, James Patterson, Benjie Randall, Christianne Tisdale, Anna Aimee White.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.