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His Heart Belongs to Salsa

POP MUSIC | LATIN PULSE

June 14, 1998|Ernesto Lechner | Ernesto Lechner writes about pop music for Calendar

For a man who has just been involved in one of the most high-profile Broadway failures in years, singer-actor Marc Anthony seems to be in a pretty good mood.

"It was never bad news, you know," he says of the shuttering in March of "The Capeman," the critically panned Paul Simon musical that closed only two months after its opening.

"Bad news is something relative. I went into 'The Capeman' project to learn. Paul took me under his wing as a songwriter, as an artist. What more do you want? We became really good friends, to the point where I love him to death."

Then again, Anthony's career didn't exactly depend on the fate of a Broadway play.

At age 29, the Nuyorican singer is the top name in salsa music today, mixing smart pop sensibilities with Afro-Caribbean rhythms in a series of three albums for RMM Records. His 1997 album, "Contra la Corriente," sold about 500,000 copies in the U.S.--quite an achievement considering that 100,000 units sold is enough to garner a platinum award in the Latino market (as opposed to 1 million for other genres).

"I wish I could say that this was all carefully planned, that we're geniuses when it comes to strategy," he says of his fame in the salsa world. "But no, it's all heart. You have to believe me. I've been true to the art, and I'm proud to say that I have."

As Anthony speaks with utmost sincerity, it is easy to see why he has become the favorite salsero, especially among young women. Though he doesn't have the classic good looks of a Ricky Martin, he exudes a burning passion and honesty on stage and in person.

"Earlier today, [an interviewer] asked, 'Do you really feel what you say?' And I thought, 'What an insulting thing . . . God, give me 20 Oscars for pulling it off after all these years,' " he says, sitting in his room at a posh West Hollywood hotel.

Anthony, who lives in New York, was in town preparing for his June 27 concert at the Greek Theatre. It's not only his first concert since "The Capeman," but his first in almost two years.

The singer literally put his career on hold to prepare for the Simon play. His only professional break was to record "Corriente," an acclaimed work that helped elevate Anthony to superstardom in the salsa world.

"It was a time crunch," he says of making the album. "I had three weeks to record it. I picked those nine tunes after listening to 1,300 of them, so I knew [they] would work.

"I built a studio in my house and got musicians to come and play. I would send the tapes to [co-producer] Cuco Pen~a in Puerto Rico and get his feedback over the phone. And we got it done. It was awkward and different and exhausting. So when I say that I'm prouder of this album than any other, there's a reason behind that, because I never felt more vulnerable than while I was making it."

The time might be ripe for Anthony to cross over from the limited world of Latin pop. Besides "Capeman," his visibility in the Anglo world has been heightened by acting stints in some arty movies, notably "Big Night," and his upcoming vocal on the soundtrack of the Antonio Banderas film "The Mask of Zorro." And after being courted by DreamWorks and other major labels, Anthony finally has reached a multi-album agreement with Sony to record music in English.

The singer is, indeed, eager to expand his musical horizons to the Anglo market, though he doesn't want to abandon salsa.

He believes the "Capeman" experience was pivotal in his decision to reach beyond Latin music, saying it made him a much more confident performer.

"I would do it all over again," he says of his involvement with the failed musical. "It was like going to Harvard for three years. And the play worked for me, because I got great reviews. I walked away with a piece of life, a moment of wisdom."

As much as working with Simon, the thrill of "Capeman" was being on equal footing with actor-singer Ruben Blades, who was both his idol and mentor.

"It was surreal," Anthony says of working with Blades. "I mean, how often do you find yourself as vulnerable as your mentor? . . . Being scared of the same things?"

He pauses, as if still touched by the memory of the two men bonding in the musical.

"I can close my eyes and say I've lived every dream," he says finally. "Being Ruben's friend is a badge of honor, and a symbol of how far I've come."

*

Marc Anthony, Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave. June 27, 7:30 p.m. $25-$45. (213) 480-3232.

*

MARIACHI MEMORIES: One of the delights of idle channel surfing is coming across an old black-and-white movie on one of the Hispanic stations--seeing, for instance, Antonio Aguilar or Pedro Infante serenading the beauty of their dreams, accompanied by a traditional mariachi orchestra.

Such nostalgic imagery will be saluted at this year's ninth annual Mariachi USA Festival, which will be held Saturday and next Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl.

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