The way the music biz has been going, it figures that the biggest album of 2006 was an ancillary product. But as celebrated offshoots go, the quadruple-platinum soundtrack to High School Musical — last year’s top cable draw and the best-selling TV-movie DVD ever — was a darned effective souvenir. A song like ”Start of Something New” could provide modest pleasure on its own. Combine it with the insanely cute chemistry between Vanessa Hudgens (bookworm Gabriella) and Zac Efron (jock Troy) — she with those (virginal) bedroom eyes, he with those perpetually surprised peepers — and it’s suddenly transcendent pop, for anyone able to recall or anticipate the first flush of puppy love.
With High School Musical 2, the franchise is putting its music foot first. The soundtrack arrives Aug. 14, three days before the sequel’s Disney Channel premiere — a gap that’ll give kids (and parents) time to commit every lyric to memory, making the movie’s first airing a full-on karaoke experience. While this material won’t upstage the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy, it is on par with the previous soundtrack’s sweet, crafty fun. Just as the sequel has the same creators (and the films feel like they were shot back-to-back), the new album mostly uses the original’s songwriting teams and templates. Want another song that conflates sports with choreography, á la ”Get’cha Head in the Game”? Try ”I Don’t Dance,” in which baseball talk replaces basketball-court squeaks. ”You Are the Music in Me” is HSM 2‘s “What I’ve Been Looking For” — both an earnest Troy/Gabriella duet and an insincere (but more fun) showstopper for self-absorbed Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale). Sometimes even more established song models are in play. ”Work This Out,” a full-cast celebration of summer employment, might be a descendant of an earlier Disney Records hit: ”Whistle While You Work.”
The HSM 2 plot amounts to the Last Temptation of Troy, with the hero tested in the desert — well, on a desert golf course — by the serpent Sharpay. So Efron gets a terrific crisis-of-conscience number, ”Bet on It,” with a nervous, Michael Jackson-esque hook, soon after Gabriella’s you’ve changed, dude ballad. Parents will appreciate the positive messages about staying true to oneself in the couple’s big numbers while secretly relishing Sharpay’s desperate-to-entertain determination. She gets the showiest show tunes, channeling a juvenile Noel Coward in ”Fabulous” and visiting a wacked-out enchanted tiki room in ”Humuhumunukunukua’pua’a” (a great comic showcase cut from the movie). Puppy love is grand, but for anyone who truly appreciates the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that HSM embodies, I’m not sure that Sharpay isn’t the real heroine after all. B+
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