Sam Morrison had one hell of a 2021.
After quarantining with his beloved partner Jonathan throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jonathan passed away from the virus in the early spring of 2021. Then in the summer, Morrison was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes the very same day as his first television appearance following Jonathan's death. By the fall, he was stepping back to the stand-up mic as he learned to use comedy as a way to cope with the ache of Jonathan's loss.
"Some days I needed to talk about it and other days I needed to not talk about it," Morrison says, explaining the nonlinear development of Sugar Daddy, his one-man-show now playing at the SoHo Playhouse through February 17. Within the piece, Morrison explores the grief and change that swirled throughout 2021. "Whatever was most appropriate to survive that day, I did. Eventually it started to turn into a show."
While Morrison’s onstage persona is boisterous and bold, offstage there is a subtlety to his speech the belies keen introspection. In contrast to his vulnerability onstage, he is guarded in conversation; he's been burned in interviews before, and has to be careful to protect himself from those that would take advantage. "Some people are insensitive, and they just don't recognize that they're twisting my life to fit into their agenda," Morrison elaborates. "They’re not seeing the human being on the other side of it."
Sugar Daddy is a dual pun of a title; both for Jonathan and the stereotype others put on their relationship, and for Morrison's glucose monitor, which he has personified as a reminder of Jonathan, keeping him alive in the wake of his diabetes diagnosis. When he runs onstage, welcoming the audience to "grief support group," he means it.
"I'm opening myself up to other people, and I'm sharing myself and I'm sharing Jonathan," Morrison says, smiling lightly whenever Jonathan's name passes his lips. "You know, there are nights that I'm more connected to Jonathan than others, and it's completely up to me. When I get to these moments where I talk more honestly about my grief, it's however I'm feeling in that moment. Nothing is forced. There are certain things I like to hit on every night, but for the most part I'm just talking honestly to the audience about whatever I'm dealing with that day. It's very, very, loosely scripted."
In January 2022, after several months of open mic nights and open-hearted conversations, Morrison decided to bring the then still-in-development Sugar Daddy to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Playing the famed Gilded Balloon venue, the show received rave reviews, leading to the current Off-Broadway transfer. It wasn't easy to put together such a personal show in the tumult of the Fringe.
"Edinburgh's a beast, no matter what you're going through. Artists are having breakdowns left and right! It's a crazy thing, but it was a huge breakthrough for me personally," Morrison states emphatically. "It turned things around for me. I was able to talk about a lot more than I ever was able to before, and in more honest ways and more openly. I was so scared to do it, but by the end of Edinburgh, I had figured out what the show had to be."
In the transfer to Off-Broadway, Morrison was able to fold in more theatrical elements alongside his director Ryan Cunningham. One element, his onstage glucose monitoring, is far more factual than theatrical however. At various moments throughout the show, Morrison can be seen doing a finger stick, declaring that he's terrified that he'll go too low or too high during a performance; unfortunately, that fear is justified.
"It literally happened last night!" Morrison laughs. "God, diabetes sucks. I was on the train over to the theater and I went really low; under 70, most people start to feel it, and I was in the 30s, which is dangerously low. I was panic eating gummies, but the gummies were stale so I was choking on them while trying to get them down, it was such a mess. By the time I got to the theatre, I barely had time to sound check, and then my blood sugar was high for most of the show because it's impossible to calibrate everything. When my sugar is high, I'm out of it, so I was just-" Morrison waves his hand in front of his face to demonstrate wooziness. "But hey, I survived!"
While audiences regularly double over with laughter throughout Sugar Daddy, they're equally likely to bow their heads with tears. Morrison takes it in stride.
"I just want them to be reminded of how precious love is. Love is the most important thing in the world. People should understand that the show is about grief, but they should come to laugh. Sometimes love makes us smile, sometimes it makes us cry; it's still love."