May 15, 1995 12:00 PM

MOMENTS AFTER DOWNING A sandwich in the spotless kitchen of his new Hollywood Hills home, Ricky Martin is summoned to the living room by his personal manager, Jose Luis Vega. “Ricky, you’re on!” shouts Vega, who has been watching General Hospital—and waiting for the moment. Martin, 23, grimaces and covers his eyes as he studies himself singing an antimelodic version of “Happy Birthday” to a fellow cast member on the ABC soap. “Ugh,” groans Martin as he listens to his character, bartender Miguel Morez, mangle the tune. “You know,” he says, lest anyone should get the wrong idea, “it was supposed to be off-key.”

Most people know that. Not only is Martin a chart-topping recording star in Latin America, but as a member of Menudo, the meticulously groomed, all-Puerto Rican singing group of the ’80s, he was trained to make teenage girls swoon and also to vocalize very precisely. The memories of his regimented years are bittersweet, but he is grateful for one thing. “Menudo was the best school,” he recalls. “All the rehearsals and discipline—it was like the military.” Last year, sexy as ever, old soldier Martin marched into the world of daytime drama. The swooning has already begun. “The mail response on him is very positive,” says Wendy Riche, executive producer of General Hospital. “Ricky will be very big.”

In some ways he already is. ABC has talked to Martin about possibly developing a prime-time series with him. His third solo album (still untitled), featuring his own songs, as always, is due June 22. His first two discs have sold a combined 1.3 million copies in Latin America, making Martin a top-selling singer there.

Yet Menudo almost robbed Martin of his desire to perform. From 1984, when he joined the group at age 12, to 1989, when he quit, he toured up to nine months a year, sometimes rehearsing as many as 16 hours a day. Edgardo Diaz, pop impresario and manager of the bubblegum quintet, called every shot. Though Martin became a millionaire with Menudo, he was frustrated by Diaz’s autocratic style. “Our creativity was stifled,” says Martin, who doesn’t keep in touch with any of Menudo’s ex-members and is by far the band’s most successful alumnus. “We were told [the songs we wrote] were no good. We began to question the need for rehearsing the same routines over and over.”

The rigors of Menudo also caused conflicts at home. Because he spent so little time in Puerto Rico, his parents, Enrique Martin and Nerieda Morales (who divorced when Ricky was 2), began feuding over quality time with their boy, despite their joint custody. “When my dreams started coming true,” says Martin, “my parents started fighting. I had everything I ever wanted, but my family was falling apart. Before that, I was the glue that kept them friendly toward each other.” He was especially angry at his father, a psychologist, who, says Martin, “wanted me to choose between him and my mother. How do you ask a child that?”

In 1985, Ricky, who so resented his father that he changed his name from Enrique, decided to stay with his mother, a legal secretary, causing a rift that wasn’t resolved until last year, when both Ricky and Enrique patched up their differences after much discussion. “I hated the estrangement and couldn’t live with it anymore,” says Martin, who has two step-siblings from his mother’s first marriage and three from his father’s second marriage. “Now he and I talk every day.” Friends like General Hospital’s Lilly Melgar, who plays Lily Rivera, Martin’s love interest on the show, have noticed a change in him too. “After he reconciled with his father, Ricky’s been the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Melgar. “He has inner peace.”

Martin’s search for himself began in earnest when he quit Menudo. After graduating from high school in Puerto Rico, he moved to New York City to get away from his warring family. “I did a lot of growing up there,” says Martin, who lived off his Menudo earnings. “In Menudo they told you what silverware to use. Suddenly I was paying my own bills.”

But when ennui began setting in around 1992, the urge to perform resurfaced, and Martin moved to Mexico City, where he easily found work on TV He starred in a Spanish soap opera, or novella, called Alcanzar una Estrella (Reach for a Star), and when the series spawned a movie, he copped a Heraldo, the Mexican equivalent of an Academy Award. Later that year, Martin released his first solo album and embarked on a sold-out tour of South America. Buoyed by his success, he moved to Los Angeles in 1993. After appearing on NBC’s short-lived sitcom Getting By, he caught Riche’s attention. “Our head writer saw the tapes [of Martin in concert],” she recalls, “and said, ‘Wow! If he can act, let’s sign him up.’ ”

Now, a year later, Martin remains focused on his career. “When I was with Menudo,” he says, “we had many girls. We’d swap girls. I went through that already. Now I have other priorities, and they are to live one day at a time. I’m not dating, but I am growing up.”

PETER CASTRO

LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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